More than half the people passing through U.S. airports now receive preferential security treatment because they pose no clear threat to aviation safety, federal officials say.
The shift has significantly reduced the lines at security checkpoints, according to the Transportation Security Administration, reflecting the goal of TSA Administrator John S. Pistole to move away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to screening passengers.
For years, the TSA faced criticism from Congress, the travel industry and fliers for giving the same scrutiny to grandmothers, toddlers, airline pilots, soldiers and other seemingly harmless passengers that it gives everyone else.
When Pistole arrived at TSA four years ago after a career at the FBI, he began a shift to an intelligence-driven, risk-based approach to keeping terrorists off airplanes. Under pressure from Capitol Hill and U.S. Travel Association lobbyists, he also wanted to reduce the time passengers spent snaking through lines at security checkpoints.
Recent TSA data shows Pistole’s evolution has brought wait times down significantly.
Ultra-long waits of 20 minutes or more have been reduced by 64 percent, according to the agency.
Those reductions have been achieved by exempting more than half of all passengers from the same level of attention that everyone received in the past.
Some of the exemptions are newer than others. Members of the military, passengers under the age of 12 or over the age of 75, and civilian Defense Department workers are among those who go through special lines that don’t require shoe, belt or jacket removal, or taking laptop computers from their cases.
The TSA created a program called Pre-Check that allows prequalified passengers to use the same lines, and randomly selected fliers who are not enrolled in the program are sent to those lines, too.
In addition, Global Entry, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection program designed for international travelers, also provides passengers with a “trusted traveler” number that they can provide airlines when they buy tickets, allowing them to use the expedited security lines.
“That’s great news that they’ve been able to reach that [50 percent] milestone,” said Courtney Temple, director of government operations at the Travel Association. “As the Pre-Check program continues to grow, there needs to be an effort to educate the public about the program, but I understand the TSA has been very proactive about that.”
The TSA says it takes about 10 minutes to apply at one of the Pre-Check enrollment centers. Application requires a background check, fingerprints and an $85 fee for a five-year enrollment. A passport, required for Global Entry, is not necessary.