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Originally published June 30, 2012 at 7:00 PM | Page modified July 2, 2012 at 11:14 AM

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Will they or won't they let you use PreCheck lane?

TSA's new PreCheck fast-pass airport screening program is "good in theory," says one Alaska Airlines passenger, but "the execution leaves much to be desired."

Seattle Times travel writer

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So you've been preapproved for PreCheck, the government's new fast-pass airport security screening program — either because you're a high-mileage frequent flier invited by your airline to participate, or you're a member off the Global Entry, Sentri or Nexus expedited U.S./Canadian/Mexican border-crossing programs.

What are your chances of actually getting to use the special lanes at Sea-Tac Airport and other U.S. airports where low-risk passengers no longer have to take off shoes or jackets, remove laptops and liquids from carry-ons, nor walk though full-body scanners?

TSA won't say what percentage of preapproved passengers get the green light on each flight. But anecdotal evidence suggests some are ending up in the slow lane more often than they expected — the result of a TSA policy to continue randomly selecting even PreCheck passengers for full screening.

Who does and doesn't get to use the PreCheck lane is a hot topic on the popular FlyerTalk travelers forum, so I asked Seattle Times readers to report on their experiences.

"I am a Nexus card holder and registered my pass number with Alaska Airlines. So far, I am 1 for 4 going through the PreCheck lane at Sea-Tac," reports John Austenson. "Of course, there is no explanation on why you get turned-down."

What frustrates Austenson is that there's no way to find out how things will go until you arrive at the airport, get in line and an agent scans your boarding pass for a special bar code.

"The system is good in theory," he says, "but the execution leaves much to be desired."

Like the lottery

Some expressed frustration that only those flying on Alaska Airlines out of Seattle can use the PreCheck lane set up in late April at Checkpoint No. 5 in the north end of the terminal.

Let's say you're flying on American, United, Southwest or another airline. You can't use PreCheck at Sea-Tac until TSA decides to bring others into the fold, even if you have a Nexus, Sentri or Global Entry pass.

"Love the process," writes Larry Dean. He and his wife have gone through PreCheck twice without any hassles. "The main problem I have is that it's not available for more carriers and more airports."

TSA emphasizes that PreCheck is still in the test phase. While it hopes to have the program in place in 35 U.S. airports by year's end, the only airlines so far picked to participate are Alaska, Delta and American, depending on the airport.

Michael Stewart was initially pleased when TSA chose Alaska Airlines to pilot PreCheck in Seattle.

"I entered my known traveler number (Global Entry number) into my Alaska profile even before the airline officially invited me to apply," he says. "The next flight, I went to the airport on a Sunday morning and the TSA staffers at the PreCheck desk were almost like private concierges. It was like the old days.

"Since then, unfortunately, there have been three more visits to the PreCheck desk and each time I have been shunted to the left to go through an exceptionally slow-moving line. So, PreCheck has worked for me one out of four attempts, even though the government has tons of background data on me."

Nexus member Carole Ann Milton reports better luck.

"I have used the PreCheck twice and it was great! I literally just walked through. The only waiting in line I experienced the second time was because people were in the wrong line — mine! — which they weren't eligible to use."

Alaska Airlines did not invite MVP Gold member Debi Fritz to apply, but as a Global Entry member, she's been able to pass through the PreCheck lane three out of four times.

"It is a fun game with me; like pulling a winning lottery ticket," she says. "I don't get angry when I am not picked, but I sure love the added ease of not having to disrobe and dismantle my luggage."

How to apply

Some are confused on how to register for PreCheck.

For now, there are two ways:

1) Accept an invitation from your airline, likely only if you're a high-mileage frequent flier. Information at www.tsa.gov/what_we_do/escreening.shtm.

2) Apply for Global Entry, Nexus or Sentri. Once approved, enter your number in the "known traveler" box when making your airline reservation. See https://goes-app.cbp.dhs.gov/main/goes.

Have a question or comment on travel? Contact Carol Pucci:

cpucci@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @carolpucci.

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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.

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