I see you, you miserable sonovabitch. Shuffling along with that hockey equipment bag you call a "personal item," compulsively checking your phone to see if you're going to miss your flight while still in this security line. I see you seethe when the family of six in front of you doesn't understand the concept of removing liquids from their bags. And I see your indignation when you hear the words "male assist" because you forgot to take a gum wrapper out of your pocket. Your shoulder is throbbing, your feet feel like marble, and there's no chance you'll have time to eat anything but airline party mix for the next six hours.
Oh, and because you're an otherwise functional American adult, I don't feel a bit sorry for you.
As you mope through a line best described as Black Friday at Target, you're cursing somebody else. The "idiots" who run the TSA. The infrequent flyers who fumble the whole laptop procedure. The terrorists, who clearly "won" when they stole our freedom to arrive at the terminal 35 minutes before takeoff. But, really, the only person you have to blame is yourself: you still haven't signed up for TSA PreCheck, and if you had, you'd already be playing Plants vs. Zombies at the gate.
The TSA tried. It really did.
It all started as a smart, measured response to post-9/11 logjams at airport security lines. In 2011 the TSA introduced the PreCheck program, where $85 and an FBI background check got passengers the privilege of gliding through security like they did in the '90s. Leave your flip-flops on, leave your computer in your backpack, and swig your Diet Coke as you go through a regular ol' metal detector. It was intended to keep us low-threat flyers from taking up TSA agents' time, and vice versa. Rarely do federal programs make so much sense.
The TSA sized up the American people and guessed that 25 million people would enroll. And because the agency was wacky enough to think 85 bucks and a couple hours of your time was worth never having to hear the words "full-body scanner" again, it adjusted its workforce accordingly -- from 47,000 screeners to a lean 42,500... for an expected 740 million passengers this year. All that was left was for you to hold up your end of the bargain, and we'd all be flying faster, cheaper, and more safely.
Turns out the TSA vastly underestimated this country's love of procrastination and whining. The PreCheck program has sputtered a bit, with just 9 million people enrolled so far, about a third of what the TSA needs to keep airport security lines moving at a reasonable pace. Gargantuan lines in May led to O'Hare holding 30 flights so passengers could catch them -- and still 450 people were left stranded. Passengers at Newark, San Jose, Atlanta, LaGuardia, and others all reported ludicrous waits, prompting the TSA to roll out more canine teams at various airports, to get bomb-sniffing dogs to do more of the screening.
This is going to happen every summer, unless the TSA makes huge investments in personnel that no one wants to pay for. If you've got a clean background, like to fly, and haven't signed up, then now's the time. Your country needs you.
You can be part of the solution
Every time you go to the airport, you see the six people breezing through the PreCheck line and think, "Man, I really need to sign up for that." Like you say you need to paint your rec room or do your 2011 taxes.
But your rec room is your business alone. Shunning PreCheck hurts everyone.
TSA intended PreCheck for the tens of millions of people who don't need extra screening. When those people are in one line (that moves at maximum speed) the regular line also gets substantially shorter. Without PreCheck, you're just making the slow line longer, more onerous. Think of PreCheck as your good deed for safe flying and speedy airport entry, even if you rarely fly.
Why don't more people sign up?
The only thing Americans adore more than kvetching is making excuses for why they can't change their situations. For PreCheck, these excuses include: the time it takes, its cost, the weeks-long approval process, and paranoia over registering with a federal agency. Pretty much all of them are bullshit.
Don't wanna shell out the $85? PreCheck is good for FIVE YEARS. That's $17 a year. Even if you fly just once a year that's less than you'll spend on dinner for two at the in-terminal Wendy's.
Don't have time to go do the interview? C'mon. A trip to the airport to interview might take you half a day. If that's four hours, and it saves you having to wait on two two-hour TSA lines, you've now made that time back. If you live in Chicago or New York and the airports are all-day excursions, then just schedule your interview for the next time you're flying back home from somewhere.
Approval takes too long? Sign up now and you'll be PreCheck-ready before the fall. If you'd thought about it over the holidays, you'd be approved for summer. The approval time is a constant; the lack of planning is your fault.
Don't want the FBI checking your background? Well, if you've got a previous conviction for illegal toucan smuggling, you won't qualify anyway. If you've got a clean record, showing it to the TSA isn't exactly tipping off Big Brother. It's just one federal agency sharing info with another, hardly a revelation.
Your list of excuses just got even shorter
So back to what the TSA is doing to get you in the fast lane: it's bringing the show to you. In perhaps the only summer tour actually worth $85, the agency will be opening pop-up enrollment centers at hotels in 12 cities, where you can sign up, do your interview, and get your PreCheck on. Several of these pop-ups are in cities with particularly snarled airports -- New York, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle. If your local airport doesn't have mind-numbingly long TSA lines, you're probably not getting a pop-up. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't sign up anyway. No one wants to hear a non-voter complain about politics, and no one wants to hear you cuss an hour-long line you could've skipped, if you'd just thought ahead.
Last year I put my $85 where my mouth was. The second flight I took with PreCheck was out of LAX, where a sign warned of 90-minute wait times. I skated through in seven. Yes, part of me enjoys sauntering past the poor bastards in the regular line like a VIP being whisked into Club D-Gates. But I'd gladly sacrifice that feeling of exclusivity if it meant easier traveling for everyone. At this point, though, the power's up to you. The next time you miss a flight while zombie-shuffling through a two-hour security line, don't say I didn't warn ya.
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