Expect long lines at airport security this summer

It is apparently time to update the advice to arrive at the airport at least an hour before your flight. For the summer of 2016 and possibly beyond, plan on two hours.

The reason lines at airport security checkpoints are growing, yet moving with the speed of an arthritic snail, is two-fold: a record number of travelers and a declining number of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners.

TSA Pre-Check at SEA
One of the reasons more people are flying is that airline fares have, on average, dropped over the last couple of years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, airlines fares dropped 3.0 percent overall in 2015, following a 4.7 percent decline in 2014. Other reasons could include an improving economy and a growing number of flights to more destinations.

Among other reasons security lines are moving more slowly is optimism on the part of the TSA, optimism that turned out to be, well, overly optimistic.

When TSA launched its PreCheck program in 2012, it expected that 25 million fliers would enroll in the program that gives pre-cleared passengers expedited screening. According to a recent Associated Press article, fewer than 10 million travelers have enrolled to date. Based on that and efficiencies in other areas, TSA began reducing the number of screeners from over 47,000 three years ago to about 42,500 today. Combined the double-whammy of more people in line and fewer people to check them through, and the waits become longer.

There are ways around that. First, consider enrolling in TSA's PreCheck program or a similar program operated by a different agency, like the Global Entry, NEXUS or SENTRI programs operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Travelers accepted for any of these programs will be able to use the PreCheck lines in addition to other expedited clearance benefits the programs offer.

While the PreCheck program provides expedited screening at airports in the U.S., the Global Entry program provides expedited customs clearance when returning from outside the country. The NEXUS program provides expedited clearance for those who travel to and from Canada by land or sea, while the SENTRI program does the same for those who travel to Mexico, again by land or sea.

The application fees for the programs are similar. The application for the PreCheck program is $85 and, if approved, the Known Traveler Number issued will be valid for five years. The application fee for Global Entry is $100 and the credential is likewise good for five years.

It may take significantly longer to obtain a Global Entry credential than a PreCheck credential; waiting times for an open appointment for the required in-person interview can be several months. However, applicants can schedule an appointment at any of the CBP's centers, so those willing to travel may be able to find an earlier appointment at a center other than the one nearest their home Because many centers are located at airports, those willing to travel may be able to find an earlier appointment at a center just a short flight away.

When I applied for my Global Entry credential on Nov. 4 of last year, the earliest appointment at the center in my home airport of Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA) was Dec. 29 but the CBP center in Blaine, Wash., about two hours north of Seattle, had appointments open the very next day. Because my schedule allowed, I made an appointment and completed my interview in what I thought must have been record time.

How well does it work?

As with many such things,the answer is, "It depends." However, during our most recent flight, my wife and I walked directly up to the agent staffing the PreCheck line and cleared the screening process in minutes. Sipping a cup of coffee once we were beyond security, we noticed a family who has been at the airline counter the same time we were finally clearing security at least 25 minutes after we did.

If you qualify, obtaining a PreCheck clearance will cost $17 per year; a Global Entry credential works out to $20 per year. In my assessment, it is a small sum well-spent to reduce the time spent waiting in line as well as the stress that goes along with it.

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

Photos by Carl Dombek
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