A program intended to give trusted airline passengers an expedited security screening is being plagued nationally by a clogged and overwhelmed approval system. But things are a little less strained for travelers here in the Valley.
A growing number of passengers are signing up for the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program, willing to pony up $85 for the privilege of keeping their shoes on their feet, their belt around their waist, and their computers and bags of liquids in their carry-on bags when they go through TSA screening lines at airports.
Passengers approved for the program receive a “known traveler number” that they can use when they book a ticket on a participating airline. The boarding pass is printed with a “TSA PRECHK” designation that lets passengers into the fast lane.
“Passengers with TSA PreCheck, with expedited screening, can save 10 to 15 minutes in time depending on the time of day,” said Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman in Los Angeles. “Typically, people are waiting less than five minutes” in the PreCheck line for screening while travelers in the regular security line are fumbling with their shoes, belts and computers.
That convenience has a powerful appeal. And this year, as security lines at airports grew longer and complaints from passengers about delays became more frequent, interest in TSA PreCheck’s streamlined screening has exploded. Nationwide enrollment was happening at a pace of about 8,000 per day in April; last month, it doubled to about 16,000 per day.
Passengers with TSA PreCheck, with expedited screening, can save 10 to 15 minutes in time depending on the time of day.
Nico Melendez, TSA spokesman
That surge is creating a bottleneck in the application and approval process for the program.
It’s a relative snap to apply online, but the hang-up is in what happens after you hit the “submit” button on the online application. In some parts of the country, passengers are faced with a month-and-a-half wait – and sometimes longer – for an in-person appointment at an application center, where they have a brief interview, are fingerprinted and pay the application fee. Then there is a wait of up to 30 days to find out if you’re approved.
Compared to larger cities, Fresno is fortunate. A recently submitted application yielded an appointment three weeks later. If you were willing to drive an hour and a half to Bakersfield, an appointment was available as soon as the next day. On the other hand, someone applying for TSA PreCheck in the San Francisco Bay Area would be waiting until the end of July for the first available appointments at application centers in San Francisco, San Jose and Mountain View. In Walnut Creek, in the East Bay, no appointments were available in the next 45 days.
You could apply online and try just walking in at an office before your appointment date, but you’re rolling the dice against the prospect of an hours-long wait. The centers serve customers with appointments before handling walk-in applicants.
“Due to a significant increase in demand for TSA PreCheck, TSA recommends that travelers who wish to enroll in TSA PreCheck make an appointment online to avoid waiting at the application center,” according to a TSA statement issued by Melendez.
MorphoTrust USA is a company that has a contract with the federal government to process all TSA PreCheck applications at about 370 IdentoGo centers across the country. Fresno’s IdentoGo office is at Fresno Drug Testing, sharing an innocuous strip mall on Bullard Avenue near Fresno Street with a massage parlor and a liquor store.
On June 13 during the lunch hour, there was no line, no customers waiting in the lobby. But Tony and Sandra Ratkus of Clovis had no such luck when they stopped by without an appointment on June 2, a few days after filing their online TSA PreCheck applications. They signed up because they’re planning a trip to Hawaii later this summer, “so we thought, let’s spend the money and do this” expedited screening, Tony Ratkus said.
“We had the afternoon off, so we went on down there,” Ratkus added. He and his wife waited several hours while the staff handled customers with appointments before finally getting processed. “They just fingerprint you and take your money and check the stuff you already put on the Internet.” The couple finished up about 4:30 p.m., Ratkus said.
The TSA PreCheck program, which began in 2011, is available through all of the airlines that serve Fresno Yosemite International Airport. At the Fresno airport, the streamlined screening line began in late 2013, joining more than 160 airports nationwide where the program has been implemented. Fresno’s TSA PreCheck application center was opened in February 2015. As of June 11, TSA reported that 1,712 travelers had enrolled in PreCheck through the Fresno center.
Nationwide, nearly 3 million people have enrolled since it started.
For Tony Ratkus, the hours-long wait at the Fresno office was only the first annoyance. While his wife received her PreCheck approval within two days of their interviews, he was still waiting Tuesday for his known traveler number, nearly three weeks later.
“They can’t be having a hard time finding me; my fingerprints are all over,” said Ratkus, whose work has involved submitting fingerprints to the FBI, school districts in Fresno and Clovis, and other agencies. “How come she got hers in 48 hours and I’m still sitting here twiddling my thumbs?”
They can’t be having a hard time finding me; my fingerprints are all over. How come (my wife) got hers in 48 hours and I’m still sitting here twiddling my thumbs?
Tony Ratkus of Clovis, TSA PreCheck applicant
Melendez, the TSA spokesman, said there’s not necessarily any correlation between how fast or slow applications submitted at the same time are approved. “We typically say it takes about 30 days,” he said. “If one person gets it within two days, someone else may get it within 30 days. The situations are different for everyone.”
Some passengers may receive a PreCheck clearance for a particular flight – as this reporter did in January – without having applied for PreCheck. How exactly does that seemingly random selection work?
“There are rules in place to identify passengers as low-risk; it’s not random,” Melendez added. “It’s based on the information passengers provide when they book a ticket. It may appear random, but we know who we’re giving that to.”
MorphoTrust, the TSA screening contractor, is scrambling to add more capacity at those sites across the country where the backlog of appointments are greatest. It’s moving staff from underutilized locations to overcrowded urban locations.
“We’re in emergency response mode,” said Charles Carroll, the company’s senior vice president of identity services. “It’s a massive undertaking to expand the network.”
TSA ultimately hopes that half of flying travelers will be enrolled in either PreCheck or another trusted-traveler program, Global Entry. Global Entry accomplishes the same thing as PreCheck, but also allows travelers returning from abroad to skip immigration lines when re-entering the U.S.
As of mid-May, 10 million people were considered “trusted travelers” because of their membership in either PreCheck or Global Entry or because they are a member of the military, a member of Congress or another trusted category such as federal judge or some State Department employees.