TSA Pre-Check Still Great, But Lines Are Getting Longer

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TSA Pre-Check was one of the best things to come to air travel since I don’t know, the mobile boarding pass?  Point is, it is awesome.  You get to leave your shoes and light jacket on, laptop and liquids in your bags, and walk simply through a metal detector.   It was like the “old days” of air travel where you went through security, but it wasn’t the royal logistical (and potentially invasive) pain that it has become.

Originally you could only get Pre-Check by being invited by an airline via your elite status or by having a Trusted Traveler number via a program such as Global Entry (or by being 12 or under and going through with your Pre-Check parent).  Not only was the security process itself much better than the normal security line, but there was virtually no line at all to use Pre-Check.  For months I would often be the only one going through the Pre-Check line when I was at the airport.  It would often be about a 30 second process from the time I entered, to the time I exited security.  In other words, it was ah-maz-ing.

Pre-Check Lines Get More Crowded:

Of course, you know how things go when something seems to good to last…  A few months ago I started to notice that the Pre-Check line had gotten dramatically longer over night.  Not only that, but the line became filled with people who had no idea what Pre-Check was, or why they had it.  My own three year old now gets her own Pre-Check with regularity without having any elite status or Trusted Traveler number.

Those new to the program in the line often aren’t familiar with the rules, and so still try to take off shoes, computers out of their cases, etc.  On top of that, there was usually no TSA agent proactively telling them the Pre-Check rules, so it was up to more experienced Pre-Check users around them to notice their “deer in their headlights” look, and brief them on the process.  I know I tried to do that as much as possible, and encouraged others to do the same.

Despite the longer line, because of the streamlined screening process, the line still moved faster than the normal security line.  That is until yesterday.  Yesterday I was traveling from Houston Bush Intercontinental in the middle of the day on a Friday.  The lines at the airport in general were relatively minimal, but the Pre-Check line was just about the longest I had ever seen it, and the regular security lines were either the same or shorter.   Another woman entered the regular security line at the same time I entered the Pre-Check line, and she was totally through security and on her way to her gate before I had even gone through the metal detector in the Pre-Check line.  The regular security line was officially faster than the Pre-Check line yesterday.

In line for Pre-Check today at IAH

In line for Pre-Check today at IAH

Why the Pre-Check Line is Moving Slower

The slower line I and others is experience is in part due to the increased number of people using Pre-Check, their uncertainty on the rules of the program, and the Pre-Check line simply not having enough bins and other basics to keep things running smoothly.  In the regular security line there is often someone telling folks to take their shoes off, laptops out, liquids out, restocking bins, and generally keeping things moving, but that doesn’t exist in the Pre-Check lines I have experienced.

It also didn’t help that many going through had on winter boots that they would try keep on, but ultimately would set off the alarm causing a further back-up.  Another issue is that even pretty major airports still have just one terminal and/or one Pre-Check line up and running at certain parts of the day to serve all the participating airlines including Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways, and Virgin America.

In addition to those who access Pre-Check by having a Trusted Traveler number courtesy of Global Entry, NEXUS, or similar, members of the military who use their DoD number on their flight reservation, those who have paid $85 and through the DHS Trusted Traveler program, and those randomly selected to be of low risk can now also use Pre-Check.  So, you have dramatically more people using the service (especially via the “random selection” route), but roughly the same number of screening lines.

At my home airport, Houston Bush Intercontinental, Terminal A and Terminal E have fairly recently gotten Pre-Check, but only until 8AM for Terminal A, and 10AM for Terminal E.  That leaves a whole lot of the day with just one Pre-Check line in Terminal C to serve the entire airport.

Pre-Check Still Great, Just Not as Great

My entire wait for security could still be measured in minutes I could count on a hand or two, but the honeymoon period of 30 seconds or less for Pre-Check is over.  It may or may not be the fastest security line now at any given time.  However, it will likely be the most pleasant of the security lines thanks to the streamlined process.

I can tell you that on family trips being able to focus on my kid’s needs instead of quickly stripping off some of my clothes and taking things out of my bags for screening has made the security process a much less stressful part of our travel, but allow more time for Pre-Check than you used to.

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  1. It will get to a point where it will be way faster to go to the regular line and take everything off. Now that everyone can pay to get access it will be a nightmare.

  2. Good points MP. At IAH last month I was told that TSA was closed after 9 am and we all shuttled thru the regular line. Whatever.
    However, to your point, this program is obviously getting more popular.
    When I checked in at my tiny hometown airport(CRW) my boarding pass beeped three times(the telltale noise!) and I was given a little orange laminated card that I then handed to the screener. I went thru like any larger TSA airport. Shoes on etc…
    The three or four other people in line just looked at me.
    Kinda cool, but very unexpected.

  3. Airlines and the tsa need to stop opting in regular flyers. The lines are getting ridiculous. I don’t understand how they can position pre check as an expedited pre-screened service and then just start opting in regular people. It adds risk, complexity and just goes against the very reason why some of us paid to get finger printed and background checks.

  4. I used Pre-Check from the start and it was wonderful. My last 2-3 trips it has been absolutely faster to go to normal security for all the reasons you state. As usually happens with govt programs, they expanded it overnight without any idea of executing it correctly. Now if I see more than 4-5 people queuing up outside the acces point, I just go to normal lanes.

  5. I will still use it even if it is a bit longer for a number of reasons, but if they are going to eventually include most people in PreCheck then the lines need to flip and the majority of security lines need to be PreCheck and there is just a small number of regular lines.

  6. Having just spent 45 minutes to get through the regular security process at ATL’s international terminal, I can’t tell you strongly enough how much I wish they had Pre-check over there. The domestic terminal pre-check is 5-10 minutes even on the Monday mornings I’ve used it. Regular security during those times is 30-45 minutes.

  7. We got to go through TSA Precheck Thursday at LAS because our boarding pass had TSA Pre printed on it and we never even applied for it.

  8. Totally agree with the comment above stating TSA and airlines need to stop opting in others, especially after I paid a $100 for a program that is getting cluttered with the obviously least experienced travelers.

    Last week my TSA PreCheck didn’t show up on my boarding pass TSA to me even with pre-clearance it’s random and you don’t get it every time. Again, why was I charged $100. Another time when the TSAPre line had about 50 people in it, and the Platinum line was vacant, the airport employee told me I had to use the TSAPre because it was on my boarding pass. Just happy I’m switching to a job soon where I don’t have to travel so much. I can’t deal with these people any longer.

  9. As a regular Pre-Check lane user (via Global Entry membership) I was surprised and angered last week at UA at LAX where there was a TSA agent watching the Pre-Check line and telling people to remove thier laptops and belts – IN THE PRE-CHECK LANE or else they will set off the metal detectors and slow the line down…?????
    Also, the TSA agent reading the boarding passes did not even wait to hear the three beeps before whisking me through! I don’t even think he looked at my ID…..all this AFTER the scare at Terminal 3 a few weeks before – scary !

    Moreover…..it certainly does not make me feel “safer” when I had to go through an interview to get Global Entry and then be granted access to Pre-Check and then I see all these others – who have not been throughout the screening process – get into the lanes !

  10. If IAH was my home airport I would buy Clear – adding the spouse is only $50/yr and the kids are free. Clear is guaranteed to take you to the front of the line, whereas Precheck is never a sure thing. Well worth the $$ for somebody who travels frequently.

    Precheck is great when it works but as you’ve now discovered it doesn’t always work particularly at hubs where there are many FFers who qualify.

  11. We were traveling from DEN this morning and upon starting into the regular queue the TSA agent saw we had two adults plus a 2 yr old and 4 yr old and directed us into the PreCheck/CLEAR lane. Needless to say it was fast and easy.. especially with a long line in the regular security line. I saw a screen that said “TSA Randomizer” and chuckled a bit.. what in the world is that? A fancy government issued random number generator at 10x the price? I too would be angered if I had paid for CLEAR or PreCheck and random people (like us!) were being funneled through at will, but it was nice for us this morning.

  12. The ability to opt in for $85 or hundred dollars has been in place for quite some time. The new back up/longer lines are from the random selection travelers. Totally agree that it is fouling up the system. My last time through I spoke with a TSA manager (nonuniform), who said the plan is that half of the security lines will be TSA pre-check in the future. He also said their goal for pre-check line is to get you through in less than 10 minutes. Not bad, but certainly not as good as blasting through in a couple minutes

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