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Originally published Saturday, April 28, 2012 at 7:01 PM

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TSA's PreCheck, a new passenger-screening program, could use a checkup

Rather than eliminating one-size-fits-all security based solely on a traveler's perceived risk as a terrorist threat, TSA is throwing airlines and airports into the mix in deciding who qualifies for expedited security screening.

Seattle Times travel writer

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Is there a doctor in the house?

Sea-Tac Airport last week became the 13th U.S. airport where the Transportation Security Administration is testing PreCheck, a new expedited security-screening system low-risk travelers, but already the system seems in need of a checkup.

Rather than doing away with one-size-fits-all security based solely on a traveler's perceived risk as a terrorist threat, TSA is throwing airlines and airports into the mix.

Assuming you qualify as "low risk" — for Seattleites, that means you're either a high-mileage frequent flier invited in by Alaska Airlines and pre-vetted by TSA, or a member of Nexus, Global Entry or Sentri, the "trusted traveler" expedited border-crossing programs run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection — you're eligible to speed through a special lane at Sea-Tac's north checkpoint, but only if you're flying on Alaska.

Here's the catch: 25 airlines fly in and out of Sea-Tac. Let's say you're flying on American, United, Southwest or any of the others. You can't use PreCheck until TSA decides to bring other airlines into the fold, even if you have a Nexus, Sentri or Global Entry pass.

Same goes if you're flying back to Seattle on Alaska Airlines from Los Angeles, where only American Airlines passengers can use PreCheck, or Las Vegas, where it's so far restricted to passengers on Delta and American. The complete list of participating airports and airlines (so far only Delta, American and Alaska) is at www.tsa.gov/what_we_do/escreening.shtm">www.tsa.gov/what_we_do/escreening.shtm.

One promising sign: TSA for the first time will authorize all three airlines to participate when it brings PreCheck to Portland in mid-May. Let's hope it moves quickly to do the same at other airports. (TSA hopes to have PreCheck at 35 by the end of this year).

In the meantime, it would lessen confusion if Nexus, Global Entry and Sentri members could use PreCheck anywhere it's available. Their photos, digital fingerprints and thorough background checks are already on file with the government, after all. Shouldn't that be good enough?

Hassle-free screening

With the exception of random checks, PreCheck passengers walk through metal detectors instead of full-body scanners, and don't have to take off shoes or belts or remove laptops and liquids from carry-on luggage.

Sounds hassle-free except that TSA is designating just one PreCheck checkpoint in each airport, and since you don't find out if you've been cleared for a particular flight until an agent scans your boarding pass, you're taking your chances of winding up in an even longer line than you might otherwise.

Sea-Tac, for instance, has five security checkpoints. Passengers use any one of them, regardless of what airline they're flying, but PreCheck is set up only at Checkpoint No. 5 in the north end of the terminal where there are three security lanes.

TSA agents normally steer passengers to whatever lane has the shortest line. But with one of three now reserved for PreCheck passengers, others might have to wait longer. That happened for a short time last week when a mechanical problem shut down one of the three lanes at Checkpoint 5.

The biggest problem, of course, is TSA's decision to limit PreCheck to a narrow group of travelers. Grandmothers, kids and many others pose no more risk than a high-mileage road warrior. Casting a wider net would seem doable, since the pre-clearance for frequent fliers relies on a small amount of information — Alaska's MVP Gold members agreed to allow the airline to submit their names, genders and birth dates to the government for vetting.

Trusted travelers

Any U.S. citizen can apply for Nexus, Sentri or Global Entry, of course, and that certainly seems better than waiting for an airline invitation. The downside is that the programs require fees, filling out lengthy forms and going for personal interviews on weekdays in the mornings and late afternoons when most people work.

To its credit, U.S. Customs has streamlined the application for all three through the Global Online Enrollment System, called GOES (https://goes-app.cbp.dhs.gov/main/goes). Apply for one, and once approved, you're eligible for PreCheck. Beyond that, they all work a little differently.

• Global Entry allows air travelers expedited entry into the U.S. from a foreign country by using an electronic kiosk at immigration instead of waiting in line for an agent.

• Sentri allows members to use special lanes when traveling between U.S. and Mexico at land border crossings.

• Nexus is a joint U.S.-Canada program for expedited land and sea border crossings between the two countries. U.S. Nexus members can also use expedited security checkpoint lanes at Canadian airports.

Membership in each is good for five years, but until the price for Nexus ($50) goes up or U.S. Customs lowers the fee for Global Entry ($100) or Sentri ($122.25), Nexus is the better deal and the most useful for Northwesterners.

For more details on PreCheck, see www.tsa.gov.

Have a question or comment on Travel? Contact Carol Pucci: cpucci@ seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @carolpucci.

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