Tested: TSA Pre Airline Security Pre Screening

By Will Smith

Will signed up for the TSA's Pre plan, and just took his first flight using the new system.

A few weeks ago, I got an email notifying me that I was eligible to apply for the TSA Pre program If you haven’t heard of it, TSA Pre is a relatively new initiative by the TSA to pre-screen people in order to speed them through the security process at some airport security checkpoints. When you sign up, the TSA runs a background check on you to ensure that you don’t have criminal record—certain felonies will flag you and prevent enrollment. If you pass the background check, you’ll be able to use the TSA Pre screening line for a simpler screening process at many airports around the country

I’m sitting on an airplane right now, and have just completed my first TSA Pre security screening, and I can tell you that the experience was wonderful.

The application process was relatively simple. A few weeks ago, I filled out an online form, explained that I had never committed any felonies, and took the first available screening appointment available in my area. The site instructed me to bring either my passport or the types of documents that you need to get a passport (birth certificate, Social Security card, etc), and show up to a place near the Oakland airport later that week. When I showed up for the screening appointment, I was surprised that it wasn’t at a government office, but at a company that does background checks and drug testing for jobs like EMTs and crane operators. The appointment took about 10 minutes. I just had to reaffirm that I hadn’t committed any felonies, then the interviewer scanned my passport, scanned my fingerprints, paid $85 to cover the cost of the background check, and we made idle chitchat while I enjoyed the stern warnings that photography was prohibited in the screening room.

It took longer to fill up my gas tank than it did to complete the screening process.

Two weeks passed until I received a letter in the mail from the TSA that told me I was approved and gave me my TSA Pre number, which is good for five years. I filled in the form on my frequent flyer programs and on our corporate travel service, and I was ready to go. When I loaded my boarding pass on my phone this morning, it had a little TSA Pre label above the bar code. I’m not sure if that label will always be present on my boarding passes now, or if it will only be available when I’m going to be at an airport with a TSA Pre line, but I guess I’ll find out in coming weeks.

As for the screening process? It was dead simple. The TSA Pre line is completely separate from the other lines, including the line for first class and folks with frequent flyer status. I showed my drivers license and boarding pass to the screeners, and walked to the TSA Pre line. Once I was there, I didn’t have to take my laptop out of my bag. I didn’t have to dig out my liquids bag. I didn’t have to take my jacket off. I didn’t have to take my belt off. I didn’t have to take my shoes off. I didn’t have to go through the millimeter wave scanner.

I put my bags on the belt, walked through a metal detector, and picked my bags up on the other side. From the first time I showed my boarding pass until I was walked to get coffee took less than 3 minutes. I didn’t even have time to read the signs telling me what I did and didn’t have to do.

Am I a fan of TSA Pre? Based on an admittedly small sample size, yes. Rolling back the security theater that has plagued air travel since 9/11 is a good thing, even though the TSA Pre system has had some issues in the past. If you spend a lot of time traveling by air, it’s probably worth the $17 per year price of entry to avoid the hassle of unpacking your gear every time you go through security. If you’re interested in signing up, you need to go to the DHS’s Universal Enroll site. If you want to see how my continued adventures with TSA Pre go, you should probably just follow me on Twitter.