Speeding up security at U.S. airports with new PreCheck program
Chris Soriano dashes to Sea-Tac Airport several times a month, shuttling between business trips for Concur, an expense management company...
Seattle Times travel writer
Chris Soriano dashes to Sea-Tac Airport several times a month, shuttling between business trips for Concur, an expense management company, and a volunteer ice hockey coaching gig at Washington State University.
With little time to spare, he's streamlined his packing and devised a way to position his laptop on the security screening belt so he can shove it back in its case in one swift move.
"The biggest question mark in me getting to the gate is security," he says. "For me, it's all about speed."
Lee Hooks is concerned about the airport's full-body scanners that use X-ray technology to detect objects hidden under clothing.
"I really don't want to have any more radiation in my body than I have to," says Hooks, the CEO of Seattle-based Axio Research, who has been treated for cancer. "I tell them I'm going to opt out, which always makes them unhappy. Then I get my pat-down."
The hassles could end soon for these road warriors and other high-mileage Alaska Airlines frequent fliers invited to join PreCheck, a new Transportation Security Administration screening program coming to Seattle and 27 other U.S. airports sometime this year.
Although TSA hasn't set a date yet for bringing PreCheck to Sea-Tac, it's already in a test phase at 11 airports. The program calls for travelers — initially gold-plated frequent fliers invited by their airlines as well as those enrolled in the federal government's Nexus, Global Entry and Sentri border-security programs — to volunteer personal information which the government uses to determine their security risk before they arrive at the airport.
Once approved, they'll speed through a special lane where they'll likely be allowed to keep on belts, shoes and jackets; leave laptops and liquids in their carry-ons; and walk through a metal detector instead of a full-body scanner.
Does this mean we're headed down the tarmac with two-classes of travelers — a select few who breeze through the checkpoints fully dressed, and the rest of us?
Short-term, the answer is "yes," in that the airline invitees are mainly business travelers who fly more than 50,000 miles each year. But hopefully, this is just a start.
"To be effective, it's got to go way beyond that," says Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group that has lobbied the TSA to move beyond one-size-fits-all security screening. "What we really think TSA has to do is step it up," Dow says, "and find a way to enroll a large number of legitimate travelers, not just airline customers."
Dow points to a system in place at five major Canadian airports, including Vancouver, B.C., that pre-clears anyone with a Nexus card, an expedited land and sea border-crossing permit for which any American or Canadian citizen can apply. Once vetted, Nexus card holders can jump to the front of security lines at four checkpoints at the Vancouver airport.
More changes coming
Regardless of how fast TSA moves on PreCheck, you'll want to buckle in for other changes coming in the spring and summer travel. Among them:
Breaks for seniors
A pilot program allows those 75 and older (about 3 percent of air travelers) to keep on shoes and jackets as they walk through either the body scanners or metal detectors.
TSA has begun a test at four airports, including in Portland. The rules are similar to those for children 12 and under. To reduce the number of pat-downs, TSA is allowing children and seniors to pass through the screening machines more than once if needed, rather than sending them immediately to secondary pat-down screening.
After spending millions on the X-ray body (backscatter) scanners made by Rapiscan, a client of former Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff's private security company, the TSA seems to be backing away from buying more.
The backscatter machines have raised red flags because they emit low-level radiation and produce computerized nude body images of individual passengers.
TSA contends the scanners are safe, but a move by the European Commission to ban them in 27 countries prompted Sen. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, to call for new independent health studies.
In the meantime, Collins urged the TSA to move toward radiation-free screening, and that appears to be what's happening.
TSA announced in September it was spending $44.8 million on 300 new millimeter-wave scanners from L-3 Communications. Both types of scanners are designed to detect weapons or other objects hidden under clothes that metal detectors might not find. But millimeter-wave scanners use radio frequency waves — no radiation — and, with a recent software upgrade, produce generic stick-figure images.
"Right now, we're focused on deploying millimeter-wave units," said TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers. "It's the type of technology we're investing in right now."
Thirty-eight airports, including Sea-Tac, have backscatter scanners. One hundred and eighteen have millimeter-wave machines. No one to whom I've talked seems to know how it was decided which airports would get which type of machines when TSA first started installing body scanners in 2009.
What's clear is that we're stuck with the backscatter machines for now. There are no plans to replace them. TSA has said it is working on an upgrade that will replace nude body pictures with generic images, but there's been no word on when that might happen.
A new law allows U.S. airports to apply for permission to replace federal screeners with private contractors. The thinking is that the switch will (TSA will pay the costs) result in better-trained, more efficient screeners, and allow government agents to focus on security instead of personnel issues.
Sea-Tac is not among airports considering the switch, says airport director Mark Reis. That seems smart given current concerns about pat-downs and operation of full-body scanners, and the fact that the government created TSA after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, partly due to questions raised about the effectiveness of private screening companies.
"One of the things I'd be a little concerned about is if Congress started to squeeze the TSA budget, and as a result, the TSA decides that it can only reimburse so much for private screeners," says Reis. "We could get caught in the middle of that."
Have a question or comment about travel? Contact Carol Pucci: firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @carolpucci.
About Travel Wise
Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on her own experiences and readers', Carol Pucci covers everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. Her column runs each Sunday in the Travel section.