TSA PreCheck: Think E-ZPass For Flying

TSA PreCheck is meant to expand along with its enrollment. The more flyers sign up for PreCheck, the more money that saves TSA to dedicate more lanes and personnel to PreCheck.
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Drivers in Northeast and Midwest states are likely familiar with E-ZPass, the electronic toll-collection system used on most tolled roads, bridges and tunnels. (The concept exists pretty much everywhere--Florida's Sunpass, Illinois' I-PASS, California's FasTrak, etc.) It's a pretty ingenious invention: bearers of an E-ZPass transponder don't need to stop, wait in line, then dig out exact change to pay tolls, saving them time and hassle multiple times per road trip.

It's hard to believe there was ever a time when the E-ZPass program was anything but a seamless part of my daily commute and weekend road trips. I hope and believe that in the very near future, air travelers will feel the same way about TSA PreCheck.

Like any new program, though, PreCheck has some perception challenges to overcome before this can happen. There are reports about travelers hesitating to enroll for a variety of reasons, including cost. Too, my friends who are enrolled in PreCheck hate when I publicly extoll the program, because they're afraid that the more people sign up, the longer those security lines will become.

I, for one, recall feeling all of those things in the occasionally bumpy early days of E-ZPass. But that program's gargantuan success is a glimpse of what the future can be like for TSA PreCheck.

Here are four reasons why.

1. Both process travelers faster.

Because drivers can whip through tollbooths, paying automatically, E-ZPass lanes can handle four times the traffic volume of a cash-only lane. Likewise, TSA PreCheck lanes usually process an impressive 300 passengers per hour and move, on average, twice as fast as the regular security lanes at airports. This is possible because travelers enrolled in TSA PreCheck don't need to remove their belts, jackets, shoes, laptops or "3-1-1" liquids at airport security.

2. Everyone benefits from E-ZPass and PreCheck--not just those enrolled.

From the beginning, E-ZPass has had visible benefits for everyone at the toll plaza. More E-ZPass users mean fewer people lining up to pay tolls the old-fashioned way, reducing delays for non-enrolled drivers. This effect is also apparent in airport security lines, especially after a recent surge in TSA PreCheck enrollment. This past Fourth of July weekend, TSA screened 10.7 million travelers, some days processing the highest number of travelers for that date since 2007. Despite this heavy traffic, all flyers waited less than ten minutes on average--and those in PreCheck usually waited less than five.

The recent airport security streamlining measures announced by the Department of Homeland Security, which include initiatives to increase TSA PreCheck enrollment, are starting to work--and all travelers are reaping the benefits.

TSA PreCheck even surpasses E-ZPass in an important respect: it keeps everyone safer. Because TSA PreCheck enrollees are pre-screened against multiple security databases, eliminating them as threats, TSA screeners can focus instead on unknown travelers who warrant more scrutiny. I've often said identifying terrorists is like finding a needle in a haystack, and the easiest way to do that is by "shrinking the haystack."

3. Both save the government (and taxpayers) money.

New Jersey Turnpike officials, who oversee the busiest stretch of road in the Northeast, have stated that cash payments cost the government five to 10 times more to process because of staffing demands. Similarly, by rigorously pre-screening passengers, TSA PreCheck frees up valuable TSA personnel resources to focus on less-known travelers who may pose a potential threat. Taxpayers are already seeing savings from increased enrollment in PreCheck: TSA's chief risk officer testified to Congress last year that expanding PreCheck has saved the TSA $319 million in the past two years.

4. More travelers in E-ZPass means more lanes open--and the same goes for TSA PreCheck.

E-ZPass enrollment has grown exponentially since it first began--and that growth has allowed local governments to create more E-ZPass lanes, which reduce wait times for all drivers, and so on. It's the best kind of domino effect.

Here's where we find the most important similarity between E-ZPass and TSA PreCheck (one that assuages the fears of my aforementioned friends): TSA PreCheck is meant to expand along with its enrollment. The more flyers sign up for PreCheck, the more money that saves TSA to dedicate more lanes and personnel to PreCheck.

To use another metaphor, TSA PreCheck is not like your favorite neighborhood restaurant, where more people mean bigger crowds and longer waits. Like E-ZPass, if travelers continue to grow the program, TSA PreCheck lanes will soon be ubiquitous at airports, outnumbering the "regular" security lines--and the entire airport security experience will be safer and more efficient for everyone.

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