Thursday, April 17, 2014

If Everyone is Special...

A few years back, the TSA started implementing Precheck security lanes. These lanes were designed for frequent fliers with a long-term travel history and later expanded to include those who have underground background checks to enroll in the Global Entry program. And for a while it worked great.

Those of us who qualified for Pre-Check could expect much shorter security lines with experienced fellow travelers who knew what they were doing. And we didn’t have to take our shoes off or our laptops or liquids out of our bags. By streamlining and improving a process that can be one of the more frustrating parts of flying, it significantly improved the overall travel experience for those who were part of it. After years of moving in the wrong direction, there was finally step in the right direction to make flying somewhat less of a hassle. Three cheers for Pre-Check!

Recently however, I began to notice that the lines for Pre-Check were getting longer and longer to the point where the “regular” security lanes had shorter lines. And more and more of those waiting in line with me didn’t fit the profile or an experienced or trusted traveler. What had happened to something that was actually working well?

An article in today’s WSJ provides an explanation. Trouble Selling Fliers on the Fast Airport Security Lines:

The Transportation Security Administration is aggressively trying to encourage more people to sign up for TSA Precheck. But the effort has run into traveler confusion and aggravation.

Trying to hook new enrollees, TSA has been funneling regular travelers into Precheck lanes for a sample of swifter security. Some of the newbies get confused, however, and end up clogging the expedited lanes, angering Precheck veterans. And some regular travelers are getting the free perk so often they conclude they are already in the program and don't need to enroll.

"It used to be great, but recently the Precheck lines have been the slowest of all the lines," said Fred Van Bennekom, who teaches operations management at Northeastern University and has timed TSA lines out of curiosity. "Sometimes there's almost no one in regular lines and we're all backed up at Precheck."

If everyone is Precheck than no one is Precheck. We ran into the confusion and clogging issue last week when returning from Miami. TSA agents were sending non-Precheck folks through the Precheck lane and eventhought an agent was standing right there carefully explaining exactly how Precheck works, they struggled to understand and actually took longer going through the “fast” lane than they otherwise would have had they gone through normal security. This despite the fact that Precheck is actually all about having to DO LESS to get through. The agent who was trying to herd them through was visibly frustrated and even though our delay was minimal it was still annoying. We are not alone.

The influx of people to Precheck annoys some program veterans. Ann Fries says she sometimes finds 20 people in the Precheck line at Tampa, Fla., her home airport. Many get befuddled when told they don't have to take off their shoes and can leave liquids and laptops in bags. They ask why, slowing the line. Then they ask how they ended up in that lane.

We went from people who knew what they were doing to people in line who don't know what they are doing," said Ms. Fries, who signed up for Global Entry to get Precheck when it first started.

Precheck is still faster for her than regular screening at big airports like Los Angeles and Newark, which often have long lines at security screening, but Ms. Fries, an artistic director for a film festival, figures the Precheck changes have added 10 minutes to her average screening time during the past six to eight months. "It's still a billion times better than the regular lines, but it makes the benefit less of a benefit," she said.

Mr. Pistole said he has heard the complaints about Precheck lanes getting clogged, and TSA has already decided to stop moving travelers 75 years of age and older into Precheck service, unless they are enrolled, because they sometimes can take 10 minutes to move through. As Precheck enrollment grows, the "managed inclusion" effort will be phased out, he said.

I guess we should be thankful that there are some limits to the scope of those the TSA wants to go through Precheck.

Here’s a crazy idea to consider. How about we make almost all the security lanes Precheck and then only filter those who have a higher risk profile into “enhanced” security lanes? It would eliminate the benefits (increasingly diminished as they may be) that regular travelers get from Precheck, but it would make the experience of flying better for the vast majority of people who pose no real security risk.

Nah. Makes too much sense.