Remember that time when the State Department told us the wait time for passports was suddenly 2 months shorter, but the wait really hadn’t changed? Welp, it looks like the TSA just used the same playbook. I swear, I think the TSA thinks we’re all a bunch of dummies who don’t notice things; I really do. And yes, I see you there, saying, “No, it’s the TSA who are the dummies!” And thaaaaat’s fodder for another post. But hear me out…
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was developed in the months after the 9/11 attacks. Originally established as part of the Department of Transportation in January, 2002, it was moved to be a part of the Department of Homeland Security when that department was formed in March, 2003.
The TSA takes the lead in safeguarding the nation’s airports, railways, seaports, and other critical transportation infrastructure. At airports, the responsibility of TSA officers include:
- Operating various screening equipment and technology to identify dangerous objects in baggage, cargo and/or on passengers, and preventing those objects from being transported onto aircraft
- Performing searches and screening, which may include physical interaction with passengers (e.g., pat downs, property searches) conducting bag searches and lifting/carrying bags, bins and property weighing up to 50lbs.
- Controlling terminal entry and exit points
- Interacting with the public, giving directions and responding to inquiries
- Retaining and implementing knowledge of all applicable Standard Operating Procedures
As the years went on and more and more people were flying, the queues at the TSA security checkpoint were getting longer and longer. Government officials realized they might be able to shorten the lines if travelers who were vetted prior to even arriving at the airport were siphoned off into a separate line of their own. Although they and their belongings would still need to go through scanners, these “trusted travelers” wouldn’t have to go through some of the more time-consuming tasks such as removing their electronics and liquids from their bags, having to take off their shoes, belts and light jackets, etc. In turn, they could go through their queue faster, because they had been “checked” by the federal government and were deemed to be “low-risk.”
And thus, TSA PreCheck ((branded as TSA Pre✓, often referred to as PreCheck) was born.
PreCheck is a Trusted Traveler program initiated in December 2013, when it launched with two airlines in four airports. It allows its members, members of Global Entry, Free and Secure Trade, NEXUS, and SENTRI, members of the US military, and cadets and midshipmen of the United States service academies to receive expedited screening for domestic and select international itineraries.
After completing a background check, being fingerprinted, and paying an $85 fee (later reduced to $78), travelers would get a Known Traveler Number. Travelers are notified if they have PreCheck by having a indicator printed on their boarding pass that may say “TSAPRECHK”, “TSA PRE”, or “TSA Pre✓®” depending on the airline and type of boarding pass. Membership lasts for 5 years and renewal costs $70 if completed online.
PreCheck was deemed a success. By the end of its first year of its existence (December, 2014), nearly 3/4 of a million people enrolled with TSA and were approved for the TSA Pre✓® Application Program.
In May 2016, TSA estimated that more than 99% of PreCheck passengers waited less than five minutes for their security screenings.
By December of 2016, that number was down to 98% of PreCheck members having to wait less than 5 minutes.
By May, 2018, there were 6.4 million people enrolled in PreCheck. More than 50 airlines participated in the program and TSA has implemented TSA Pre✓® lanes at more than 200 airports.
In September 2018, the TSA said that 94% of TSA Pre✓® passengers waited less than five minutes in the security line.
An April, 2019 TSA press release said that 93% of PreCheck members were waiting less than 5 minutes in the checkpoint line. Later that year, the number had dropped to 91.5%.
March 2, 2020 was a banner day for the TSA. They said in a press release that 10 million people now had TSA PreCheck membership.
The pandemic was declared about 2 weeks after that. Hardly anyone flew for months on end. And when they finally did, it still wasn’t nearly as many people as had been flying before Covid, so the percentage of TSA PreCheck members who waited on the queue for less than 5 minutes skyrocketed…
- January 2021: 99% of PreCheck passengers waited less than 5 minutes
- March 2021: 98% of PreCheck passengers…
- June 2021: 97% of those with PreCheck…
Unfortunately, as more people felt comfortable with flying again, “revenge travel” began, and more people were at the airports, that number started shrinking:
- May, 2022: 94% of PreCheck passengers waited less than 5 minutes
- October, 2022: 91% of PreCheck passengers waited less than 5 minutes
Meanwhile, the TSA was making it less challenging to get PreCheck membership by partnering with outside companies to complete membership applications. They even started offering on-site enrollment centers at airports and mobile enrollment centers.
Meanwhile, while the percentage of PreCheck members who waited less than 5 minutes continued to tank, there was another issue: Global Entry.
Global Entry is another Trusted Traveler program that allows passengers to bypass the queues. But it’s used when arriving back in the U.S. They were way, way, WAY behind in conducting interviews required for membership (and sometimes renewals). And although a member of Global Entry also gets TSA PreCheck for free, their PreCheck doesn’t “kick in” until their Global Entry is fully approved. So the Dept. of Homeland Security started recommending that people who considering applying for Global Entry get PreCheck instead, so they could at least have SOMETHING (and then apply for Global Entry at a later date).
So between that and people STILL traveling like crazy, the percentage of people who waited 5 minutes or less at the TSA PreCheck line got smaller and smaller:
- March, 2023: 89%
- June, 2023: 88%
And then, all of a sudden, in July, 2023, TSA was again reporting that 99% of people with TSA PreCheck had short waits. BUT…it wasn’t 5 minutes or less anymore. Nope…now it was 10 minutes or less. From an August 31, 2023 press release from TSA (boldface is ours, for emphasis):
Changes to TSA PreCheck screening
TSA PreCheck expedites a traveler’s airport security checkpoint screening process and allows travelers to leave on their shoes, light outerwear and belt, keep their laptop in its case and their travel size liquids, gels and aerosols in a carry-on. More than 15 million people nationwide have enrolled in TSA PreCheck and regularly enjoy the expedited screening process when they travel.
Previously, children 12 and under have been permitted to use the TSA PreCheck lane when traveling with an eligible parent or guardian on the same itinerary. Effective immediately, teenagers aged 13-17 can now accompany TSA PreCheck enrolled parents or guardians through TSA PreCheck screening when traveling on the same reservation and when the TSA PreCheck indicator appears on the teen’s boarding pass.
On average, 99% of TSA PreCheck-eligible travelers waited 10 minutes or less to be screened through the security checkpoint during the month of July. TSA PreCheck enrollment is offered at multiple locations in the Puget Sound area. Begin the pre-enrollment process online at www.tsa.gov/precheck.
So with the percentage of people waiting 5 minutes or less continuing to drop to the point where having a TSA PreCheck membership might not sound so marvelous, they just changed the metrics: instead of the percentage of people waiting for 5 minutes, they changed it to what percentage of them waited 10 minutes. And suddenly they were back up to a fantastic 99% again.
Just like when they said wait times for passports were 2 months shorter…because they stopped including the time it took to get through the post office system.
So yeah, I think they think we’re all a bunch of dummies and won’t notice. And who knows…maybe some of are.
But not all of us.
Don’t get me wrong…I’m not complaining about having TSA PreCheck. Not having to take my shoes off, take the stuff out of my bag, etc., and only waiting for l̶e̶s̶s̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶n̶ ̶5̶ ̶m̶i̶n̶u̶t̶e̶s 10 minutes or less is still multiple times better than waiting for 30 minutes, 45 minutes or even upwards of 60 minutes during a busy holiday season. But I just love how they tried to artificially make the wait seem like it’s doing better, when it’s actually still going down by another percentage point every month or two or three.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary