The Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program makes security a breeze. Well, most of the time.
The fast-track system offers approved air travelers access to expedited security screening and allows them to keep on their shoes, outerwear and belts, to keep their laptops in their cases and to carry on approved liquids and gels in bags.
Passengers must pay an $85 enrollment fee and submit to a background check and interview.
So is it as good as it’s cracked up to be? Here are seven questions I hear a lot.
1. Is PreCheck really faster?
Based on my own experience, the answer is yes. But once in a while, not so much. Sometimes a PreCheck newbie doesn't quite grasp the concept and slows down the line by taking off his shoes. Others say that too many flyers are joining, and that it’s slowing down the process. But I think most catch on quickly, and the TSA says it's expanding PreCheck lanes.
2. So shoes on, and that's it?
No. It's a pre-9/11 security experience: You walk through a metal detector with your jacket and belt on. If you have a laptop, you can keep it in its case. And if you have a carry-on, you don't have to remove that little bag of toiletries. You will, however, have to take off a heavy winter coat.
3. How do I join?
There are three ways:
1. Elite miles members are typically invited into the program by their airline, and this is free.
2. Sign up for a government trusted traveler program like Global Entry, which allows vetted individuals to cross borders quickly. It costs $100 for five years.
3. Join PreCheck directly for $85 for five years.
I like Global Entry because it includes returns from international flights (or border crossings), and it's only $3 more per year than the domestic-only PreCheck.
Tip: Joining PreCheck is easier than ever: Fill out an application on the TSA site, then make an appointment to visit an enrollment center. These centers are located throughout the U.S. and in eight airports: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Nashville, New York's JFK and LaGuardia and Washington Dulles. Some airport offices require you to be a ticketed passenger.
4. Do I have to give the TSA all kinds of personal information?
That depends what you consider personal. According to the TSA site, you are not required to give your Social Security number. On the other hand, the TSA will need your fingerprints, and you must submit to an interview.
5. Is there any way to avoid this background check?
If you're an active member of the military, no background check is needed. And children 12 and under and adults 75 and older have enjoyed minimal screening with shoes on for years.
6. If I don't join, there's no way to get this speedier security, right?
Not necessarily. The TSA sometimes randomly selects flyers from the regular security line and sends them through PreCheck; it happened to one of my employees just a couple of months ago, and she was delighted. But if you want a consistent, faster security experience, you will have to join.
7. If I join PreCheck, I never have to worry about slow security again, right?
Wrong. Here are four things you must know:
--Not every airport has PreCheck. More than 115 do, but not all.
--Not every airport with PreCheck has PreCheck lanes at every entrance. To find PreCheck entrances, check the TSA app or Google “TSA entrance” and your three-letter airport code
--Sometimes shoes must come off. If you're wearing fashionable heels loaded with decorative metal, you may be asked to remove them.
Final note: The PreCheck experience is never guaranteed. As the TSA says, it will "always incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport" with no warning.
Rick Seaney is an airline travel expert and the co-founder of FareCompare.com, an airfare comparison shopping site