The Transportation Security Administration is weighing a variety of options, including a new fee structure and mobile enrollment, to attract more travelers to its PreCheck program.
“We want to get people into the program and so we’d like to make it easier,” TSA Acting Deputy Administrator Patricia Cogswell said in an interview with USA TODAY in Chicago this week. “And that means not only make it easier for them to sign up, but also if they just want to try it out, they don’t have to feel like, ‘Oh, I spent five years worth of my money.”
Enrollment in the expedited screening program, which is $85 for five years and allows vetted travelers to keep on their shoes, coats and belts and leave laptops and eligible liquids in their bags, has fallen far short of projections of 5 million new enrollments a year.
Enrollment began in 2013 and peaked at 2.2 million new enrollees in 2016. The total fell to 1.64 million enrollees in 2017 and last year totaled 1.8 million, according to TSA figures. There are currently 8.54 million PreCheck members, compared with previous projections as high as 25 million.
Renewal rates aren’t where TSA officials would like to see them either, at 68%.
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The TSA and travel industry officials want more people in PreCheck because they are lower-risk travelers and the screening process is streamlined and generally quicker. During a record travel day on the Friday before Memorial Day, 91.5% of PreCheck members waited less than five minutes in a checkpoint line, the TSA says.
“The more people who are in that environment,” Cogswell said, “(is) the best place that we could be.”
Why aren’t some travelers signing up for PreCheck?
Cogswell said traditional frequent flyers have flocked to the fast-pass through security, with more than 60% of the travelers going through security at Washington’s Reagan National Airport enrolled in PreCheck, for example.
But other airports and regions with high passenger volumes don’t have as many PreCheck passengers as you’d expect, she said.
Cogswell cited Florida and its vast number of traveling retirees as an example, calling it the “perfect population” that would benefit from PreCheck.
“We’d like to figure out, how do we incentivize those people to want to participate?” she said. “What is the sales point for them that makes it worthwhile for them?”
Would a cheaper, shorter PreCheck membership work?
One option: a PreCheck membership that doesn’t run five years, which would presumably be cheaper.
Cogswell said a common refrain among some travelers who haven’t signed up for PreCheck is: “I have to commit to five years? What if in three years it’s a totally different ballgame and I don’t want to be in this program?”
The price of PreCheck is also an issue for some travelers, though there are plenty of frequent flyers who would argue $85 is a bargain.
The U.S. Travel Association earlier this year recommended that the TSA offer volume discounts or a subscription model for PreCheck, where the $85 fee would be paid in annual installments. That would make it easier for a family of four to sign up, association spokeswoman Cathy Reynolds said.
Cogswell said the TSA is studying a variety of fee options and is expected to make recommendations in the next couple months. The key will be to make sure the agency covers its costs, most of which are up front.
“I think our perspective is very much, ‘Let’s look at a couple different options to see if they’re feasible’ and if they’re not then at least we looked at it,” she said.
The TSA is also studying ways to make it easier to enroll in PreCheck, which requires an application, a background check and fingerprinting at one of the enrollment centers around the country. One possible option, Cogswell said: Give travelers already at the airport a taste of the PreCheck line (though not the expedited screening) if they sign up for PreCheck on the spot.
Also, beginning this summer, the agency will test mobile enrollment at two airports. The pilot program will begin within a few weeks at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Nashville International Airport.
Cogswell said travelers will be signed up at a table near the entrance to the security checkpoint.
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