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Some tips to help TSA avoid confusion in the PreCheck line

Question: My husband and I flew to San Diego from Honolulu in late winter. His boarding pass gave him PreCheck status; I have paid for my PreCheck status. In the Honolulu airport we were in the much shorter PreCheck line, and there were plenty of signs saying we would not have to take off our jackets, shoes or belt, or remove our laptops and bagged toiletries. As we moved in line, Transportation Security Administration staff told my husband to remove his belt and show his toiletries. I was told to show my toiletries and remove my laptop. The TSA staff would not explain or engage any of us in conversation. I just don't understand the inconsistency in rules.

Marilyn Freeman

Laguna Woods

Answer: “Consistency,” dramatist Oscar Wilde said, “is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

If that is true, the TSA has a hugely fertile imagination.

Some of the inconsistency is designed to thwart terrorism. One time you may get PreCheck; one time you may not.

Some of the inconsistency may be a result of staffing: One time, there may be enough TSA screeners to keep open a true PreCheck lane; one time there may not.

Some of the inconsistency is the surprise of getting PreCheck when you’ve never had it.

It’s not clear why the Freemans had this experience; it may have been some combination of the latter two issues.

What is clear is that the screening process continues to confound many travelers, even those who have PreCheck, including me.

On a recent flight from Mammoth, my boarding pass clearly said PreCheck, but I guessed (correctly, although it is sort of a no-duh) that tiny Mammoth airport doesn’t have PreCheck.

If you look at the list of California airports that have PreCheck, you won’t find Mammoth, although you will find some regional airports (Monterey, Santa Maria) that do.

Mammoth’s version of PreCheck was this: You can leave your shoes on unless they have steel stays. Jacket off, laptop out, toiletries out. That’s not PreCheck. That’s letting me keep on my shoes.

So what’s all the fuss about PreCheck? What is it anyway?

If you’re a frequent traveler, skip the next several paragraphs. You know this stuff. You’re probably enjoying its benefits.

PreCheck is the fast-through-security program that allows you to keep on your shoes, your jacket and your belt, and keep your laptop and toiletries in your bag.

It does not allow you to skip screening. It does not allow you to carry on a quart of gin in your bag; your liquids and gels are still limited to 3 ounces each.

PreCheck costs $85 for five years. You must apply; you will have to appear in person to complete the process.

Global Entry is a Customs and Border Protection program that allows you to speed through reentry into the United States and also offers PreCheck. It costs $100 for five years and requires an in-person visit. 

OK, start reading again here, but don’t say, “What was the point of that? Everybody knows what these are, dimwit.”

To which I will say, “No, not everyone does.” Questions directed to “On the Spot” tell me this is so, the low enrollment in PreCheck tells me this is so, and Thomas Spagnola, senior vice president, supplier relations, for CheapOair tells me this is so.

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Spagnola, who travels about half of each month, said he was amazed at how many people don’t know about PreCheck. He hears them express their puzzlement while they are standing in line at the more than 160 commercial airports — out of more than 400 — that have PreCheck.

By this time, TSA hoped to have 25 million enrolled in PreCheck. The number is more like 4 million, or will be by the end of this year. Partly because of that gap — you have to staff for what you charge for, right?—TSA once had something called managed inclusion that allowed low-risk fliers to get one-time PreCheck privileges to better use staff.

Not only was this not fair to those of us who had paid, but a report leaked last June showed an alarmingly high rate of security lapses, which raised concerns about those who don’t have Trusted Traveler status getting the privilege.

End of managed inclusion.

Sort of. Again, inconsistency.

Readers, including Freeman, still report that non-PreCheck members (her spouse) sometimes get the privilege.

These days, the free-through-fast-security privilege is based on routine information you provide (name, gender, date of birth) and where you’ve been lately that might suggest issues (Syria trips, for instance), and not because you’re a senior citizen and don’t look like a terrorist.

All of this may lead to the summer of our biggest discontent. Airline travel is up, thanks to an improved economy and an increased number of seats for sale, but TSA staffing is down, meaning long lines in some airports.

Bag fees often spur us to carry on our bags, which means more pressure on TSA screeners and slower lines as they struggle to cope with our crud. And recent terrorist incidents mean greater scrutiny.

This convergence of factors concerns Roger Dow, chief executive of the U.S. Travel Assn. When you look at the time you need to catch a flight, you may decide to skip the short flight and drive instead, he said in a recent interview.

If TSA wants to be inconsistent, perhaps it could do so in ways that don’t involve security. For instance, Dow said, always charging $85 for PreCheck is inconsistent with smart marketing.

Instead, find a large group of people — let’s say aircraft manufacturing employees — and offer a discount for signing up a few hundred people for PreCheck, Dow suggested.

If TSA wants to be inconsistent, perhaps it could buck the bureaucratic norms and do a better job of getting the word out about what PreCheck is and why it’s a good thing to sign up. (CheapOair’s Spagnola calls Global Entry “fantastic,” and so do I.)

If TSA wants to be inconsistent, maybe it could take an outside-the-bureaucratic-box look at how its processes discourage people from signing up. Dow noted that it takes two to three weeks to get OK’d for PreCheck. You can get approved for a loan using an app faster than that. The technology is out there, Dow said.

What should be consistent is who gets PreCheck, partly because including people who don’t know what PreCheck entails leads to confusion and longer processing times as they try to reconcile the old rules with the suddenly new rules.

The consistent application of PreCheck rules means belts and toiletries don’t suddenly become the target of surprise screening, further slowing a process that TSA administrator Peter Neffenger recently told the House Homeland Security Committee will scrutinize 740 million fliers this year.

Make the message about the rules consistent. Then use the imagination to find solutions to the problems of price, process and promotion (or lack thereof) that can swell the ranks of legitimate PreCheck members who breeze through security, not because TSA isn’t paying attention but because it already has.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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