Shortening your time in the TSA line

Air travelers - particularly at the nation’s busiest airports - have become accustomed to long delays at security checkpoints, but there are ways to minimize the time spent in line.

There are several factors that are combining to result in the recent delays. First is the time of year: spring break. More travelers mean longer lines.

Second, the number of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners has been dropping over time while passenger traffic has increased.

TSA Pre-Check at SEA

In a recent article in USA Today, the CEO of the agency that operates Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP), said passenger volume at MSP has jumped more than 10 percent in recent years while the number of TSA screeners nationwide had dropped about 15 percent over the same period. Similar statistics have been quoted elsewhere.

While the predictable result of longer wait times is rearing its ugly head, there are ways to minimize those delays.

One of the most effective ways is to apply for a Known Traveler or Trusted Traveler Number. Once the number is issued, it is good for five years and gains the traveler access to the TSA Pre-Check lines, which are almost always considerably shorter and quicker than standard security. Known Traveler Numbers can be obtained through a number of programs offered by the TSA and by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Travelers who apply for TSA’s Pre-Check Program pay an $85 application fee and submit some basic information. After a background screening, applicants appear before an official, answer some additional questions and present documentation. When approved, their Known Traveler Number will allow access to the Pre-Check lines at U.S. airports where they are offered, which includes most of the country’s busiest.

Those who travel by land or sea to Canada or Mexico may be interested in the NEXUS and SENTRI programs. Similar to the Pre-Check program, applicants undergo a background screening and, if they pass, are issued a Trusted Traveler number and a card that allows access to express lanes at the borders. Access to TSA Pre-Check lines at U.S. airports is also included.

Those who plan to travel farther outside the U.S. than Canada or Mexico should consider CBP’s Global Entry program. In addition to gaining access to express lines through Customs when returning to U.S. airports of entry, Global Entry cardholders gain access to the NEXUS and SENTRI lines when crossing the border from Canada or Mexico, and access to TSA Pre-Check lines at U.S. airports. The cost to apply for Global Entry is $100 and the credentials, when obtained, are good for five years.

Given the application processing time for any of these programs, none is going to help you very much over the next few weeks. But with the summer travel season approaching, this would be an opportune time to look into these programs, choose the one that best fits your travel style and plans, and get the process underway. After all, the Known Traveler or Trusted Traveler Number will be good for the next five years, provided you don’t violate any of the air travel rules we all have to follow anyway.

Finally, while the lines at TSA Pre-Check locations will get longer as more people apply for and are approved for the credential, I am betting that they will always be significantly shorter that the general security lines. In my assessment, that makes the $100 I spend every five years for my Global Entry accreditation money well spent indeed.

Visit my main page at for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photos by Carl Dombek
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