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TSA PreCheck Makes Your Life Better — So Why Don't More People Do it?

David Pogue
August 27, 2014

There are so many reasons to be frustrated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the bureaucracy created after 9/11 to make air travel safer.

Many of the rules are just so dumb! Three ounces of liquid per bottle? Right, because terrorists would never think of traveling together and pooling their liquids. No knives or forks allowed through security? Really? Even the ones handed to you on the plane by the flight attendants?

But there’s one thing the TSA is doing right, and that’s TSA PreCheck. Or “1999 mode,” as I like to call it.

tsa precheck
tsa precheck

Even when TSA PreCheck signs are posted, most travelers don’t realize that these are special lines with different security requirements. (Photos: David Pogue)

These are special lanes at airport security that are reserved for people who the TSA believes aren’t security risks, where you don’t have to take off your shoes, belt, and jacket. You don’t have to pull out your laptop and toiletry bag. You don’t have to put your arms up inside some whole-body scanner like you’re getting mugged. Instead, it’s exactly like traveling before 9/11.

If you know about PreCheck, and you’re already a member, great! Next article.

But here’s the thing: On at least 50 percent of my trips through security, I see people who don’t realize that they’re in a special line. They take off their shoes, belts, watches, and jackets. They pull out their laptops and toiletries. They defeat the purpose of the PreCheck program and hold up everybody else — simply because nobody has ever explained what it is.

Related: Two Stranded Travelers Go Viral With “9 Ways to Pass Time in an Airport”

(I don’t think the government’s graphic designers are doing the program any favors. The logo makes it look like the word is “PreV,” which means nothing to anyone.)

tsa precheck
tsa precheck

Some travelers may look at the green checkmark in the TSA PreCheck logo and instead think it’s the letter V.

A couple of years ago, PreCheck was obscure. It was just a pilot program. Travelers were selected to participate at random, only a few airlines participated, and those selected didn’t get to use the PreCheck lane every time. You’d just see the happy little logo on your boarding pass or smartphone app and know that you were selected to use those lanes for this flight.

tsa precheck
tsa precheck

Looking for PreCheck on your boarding pass can save you a lot of time.

There was a sideways entrance into the program: You could pay $100 to join the Global Entry program, which speeds you through customs when you return from overseas. Once in Global Entry, you were automatically entered into the PreCheck program too.

A lot has changed. You may still occasionally be randomly selected to go through the PreCheck lane (check your boarding pass or app). But these days, you can also apply to be in PreCheck. An in-person visit is required at one of the 300 offices around the country.

tsa precheck
tsa precheck

An in-person visit at one of 300 locations, such as this one at Washington Dulles International Airport, is required to join PreCheck.

When you arrive for your in-person appointment, you get fingerprinted, pay $85, and provide proof of your name and address. Assuming you’re a U.S. citizen and that you have not been convicted of certain crimes, you’ll get your Known Traveler Number in a couple of weeks. In general, if you enter this number when you’re booking a flight, you’ll get to use the PreCheck lanes at the airport (assuming it’s one of the 11 U.S. airlines and 118 airports that currently offer PreCheck.)

Related: Airport Review: Chicago’s O’Hare International

Frequent travelers are probably noticing that a lot more people are using the PreCheck lines. In fact, the TSA hopes to have 50 percent of all travelers using these lanes by the end of the year.

That development, of course, means that these lanes aren’t as exclusive or as fast as they once were. But overall, the masses are getting through security much faster, with much less hassle.

tsa precheck
tsa precheck

Although PreCheck signs are posted, this is an example of a gent who is taking off his shoes even though it’s not required in this lane.

There are, however, some blunders that still cause delays. I routinely get stuck behind people who take their laptops out and put them into bins in the PreCheck lane. That’s not necessary.

You also don’t have to take off your hat, jewelry, or belt (unless big chunks of metal are involved).

You can also leave your jacket on if it’s a light one (blazer, suit jacket, windbreaker, or fall jacket, for example). Only thick, winter coats need to be removed.

Related: New TSA Security Fee Hike Will Make Your Long Layovers More Painful

In general, the only things you have to pass through the scanner are your phone, keys, and change.

If you’re not a PreCheck member and you fly often enough to justify the $85 fee, by all means sign up.

And no matter who you are, for goodness sake, check your boarding pass (or barcode on your phone app) carefully for the logo, which indicates that you get to use the fast lane for this flight.

And then, once you’re there, take advantage of your good fortune. Leave your coat, belt, hat, and shoes on; don’t remove your laptop or toiletry bag. Celebrate the fact that the TSA has taken one tiny move toward sanity.

David Pogue is the founding editor of Yahoo Tech, our site for the best tips, tricks, and reviews on technology products. Read more from David!

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