Domestic air travel soared to record levels in summer 2015, with more than 220 million passengers, eclipsing the standard established in 2007. You can expect plenty of company at the gate in 2016 as well, if a year-end survey is any indication. Expertflyer.com found that 83 percent of business travelers polled expect to fly more frequently in 2016.
An antidote to the sometimes chaotic airport experience is to enroll in one of two available programs that speed the process of getting from curbside to gate — or in the case of international travelers, back home from the Customs kiosk. TSA PreCheck and Global Entry allow pre-approved, low-risk travelers to take advantage of expedited airport security screening and customs processing.
"When more passengers are eligible for pre-check screening, it enhances security and increases efficiency," said Michael McCarthy, regional public affairs manager for the Transportation Security Administration, who is based in Boston. "The idea with TSA PreCheck is not to sort the needle from the haystack, but to basically move the haystack over."
The far smaller haystacks at airport checkpoints are those lanes designated for TSA PreCheck participants. Along with typically shorter lines, the screening regimen is streamlined as well. Enrolled travelers can keep their shoes on, keep laptops in their bags, leave their belts and light jackets on, and keep their quart-size bags of liquids and gels in their carry-on luggage.
"We would like to get as many passengers as possible eligible for TSA PreCheck screening," said McCarthy. "They don't have to spend as much time divesting themselves of as many items, and it also increases security. These are passengers that we know more about, so we have a greater degree of confidence that they don't pose any threat to airport security. It really is a win-win for us and the passenger."
The TSA recently processed its 2 millionth enrollee in the TSA PreCheck program, while Global Entry has more than 2.5 million participants. Both programs enroll approved applicants for a five-year period, and the costs are comparable: $85 for TSA PreCheck and $100 for Global Entry. So which one is right for you?
If you do not plan on traveling outside the country in the next five years, there is no need to spend the extra $15 for Global Entry. If you expect to travel internationally, you will probably want to invest in Global Entry, which is administered by US Customs and Border Protection, and is also a more involved process.
"If you fly more than once a year, at $17 a year, TSA PreCheck is a pretty minimal cost per trip," said McCarthy. "If you're going to fly internationally once or twice in that five-year span, Global Entry may make more sense for you. But you would never have to get both."
Those enrolled in Global Entry receive the benefits of TSA PreCheck when they fly domestically. For those who travel extensively between the United States and Mexico, or between the United States and Canada, there are specific programs for expedited entry at each border: SENTRI for US-Mexico crossings and NEXUS for US-Canada crossings — those approved for either program are also eligible for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck, but the approval process can take longer.
When a Global Entry program member arrives at a participating US airport from another country, the traveler bypasses the routine US Customs checkpoint questioning and proceeds to an automated kiosk, where they insert their passport or permanent resident card, provide fingerprint scans, and answer customs declaration questions. The CBP estimates that more than 75 percent of Global Entry travelers are processed in under 5 minutes.
Global Entry is available to US citizens and lawful permanent residents, as well as citizens of Germany, the Netherlands, Panama, South Korea, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. The UK is a recent addition to the program, as of Dec. 3, 2015.
Both programs have been around for years. Global Entry went into effect at three airports in June 2008. It expanded to four additional airports in August of that year, and to 13 more, including Logan Airport, in August 2009. It is now available at 46 international airports. TSA PreCheck was instituted in 2011, and is available at more than 250 airports in the United States.
TSA PreCheck has more than 350 application centers throughout the country, including 19 in New England. Appointments can be scheduled online at https://universalenroll.dhs.gov/locator, and walk-in service is available. The Global Entry program requires prospective enrollees to first fill out an application through the Global Online Enrollment System (GOES) at https://goes-app.cbp.dhs.gov/main/goes. Once they receive preliminary approval, applicants must schedule an in-person interview with a CBP officer, and there are three New England enrollment sites: Logan Airport; Warwick, R.I.: and Derby Line, Vt. (at the Canadian border). Besides Logan, the only other New England airport with Global Entry customs kiosks is Burlington (Vt.) International Airport.
Fingerprinting is required for both programs, and each application fee is non-refundable. Since the TSA PreCheck enrollment center opened in Terminal A at Logan in December 2013, about 14,000 people have been approved there. The other Boston location for TSA PreCheck, at 5 Drydock Ave. near the Convention Center, opened about a year later and has processed just over 7,000 enrollees.
"A passport is probably the best proof of identification you could bring, or you could bring a driver's license and a birth certificate," said McCarthy. "It is similar to the combination of documents you would need to fill out a W2 form when starting a new job. If your name has changed, you would need a marriage certificate, for example, to certify the name change. Then you would fill out some background information and submit fingerprints. There is a list of disqualifying offenses you can check on the websites to save yourself the time and money of signing up only to be disqualified."
Those who are approved through either program receive a Known Traveler Number, which they can use when making flight reservations. McCarthy estimated the approval process for TSA PreCheck at two to three weeks.
If you aren't enrolled in either program, but still found a TSA PreCheck (that's "Pre" followed by a checkmark) designation on your boarding pass, consider yourself lucky.
Savvy travelers who are wired to work around variables know better than to expect a sure thing, but an investment in either of these programs is bound to buy a lot less time in security checkpoints.
TSA programs, by the numbers
Launched 2009 (Boston)
Cost $100 for 5 years
Enrollment centers nationwide 89
Enrollment centers in New England 3
Enrolled 2.5 million
Cost $85 for 5 years
Enrollment centers nationwide 350
Enrollment centers in New England 19
Enrolled 2 million
Ron Driscoll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.