This Isn’t How It Was Supposed to Work: Has PreCheck Become Unchecked?

June 20, 2019
This Isn’t How It Was Supposed to Work: Has PreCheck Become Unchecked?
John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
This Isn’t How It Was Supposed to Work: Has PreCheck Become Unchecked?
John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
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Long airport lines, intensive airport screening, and the summer travel season tend to go together. Already, this year seems to be keeping with that tradition, but what if it didn't have to be that way?

Last year, nearly 814 million people passed through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening, that's a record number of travelers and a 5.5 percent increase from 2017, a trajectory that is likely to continue this year. TSA announced that May 24, 2019, was the busiest day in history with 2.8 million passengers passing through TSA screening.

With more people choosing to fly, TSA runs into the danger of spreading its resources too thin. On a recent trip through airport security, I was surprised by the large number of carry-on bags in the PreCheck lane that were flagged for secondary screening. Although PreCheck passengers receive expedited physical screening, criteria for secondary screening of carry-on bags may not be substantially different between PreCheck and regular travelers. This creates a large number of false alarms amongst PreCheck passengers, resulting in time-consuming and labor-intensive secondary screenings.

This additional layer of PreCheck passenger screening is counterproductive to the intended purpose of the system. Days before September 11, 2001, my team and I received a National Science Foundation grant and began a project that helped set the foundation for the PreCheck system. While studying aviation security, we found that the screening system itself becomes more vulnerable when TSA treats all passengers as high risk because the burden falls on TSA officials to find high-threat individuals from all the people passing through airports in real time. However, separating low-risk people from those who are moderate to high or even unknown risk allows security officials to spend more time targeting individuals in the enhanced screening process.

TSA PreCheck uses this risk-based criterion to transform commercial travel, minimizing passenger inconvenience and making it easier for travelers to pass through airport security while also balancing the need to secure the nation’s air system.  Any screening tactic that allows threat item detection to override the PreCheck background vetting process weakens the security of our nation’s air systems. Since more than one million passengers each day are screened in PreCheck lanes, excessive secondary screening for such passengers distracts officials from focusing their attention on non-PreCheck passengers. Trying to get through security on a Friday afternoon at Washington Reagan National Airport is the perfect example.

Advanced analytics, like operations research and artificial intelligence, provided the technical justification for PreCheck. These same methods can be used again to restore a semblance of sanity and efficiency to airport security. To start, TSA can enhance PreCheck by incorporating biometric identity verification, creating a third group of “Super” PreCheck passengers. Once this is in place, security can relax physical and carry-on screening for these passengers, which should dramatically reduce the number of secondary screenings and save airports and travelers time and resources. Finally, TSA should offer this classification at no cost for high volume passengers who fly six or more round trips per year. The reduction in screening device replacement and personnel costs will far outweigh the additional cost to implement biometrics, which is already used for programs like Global Entry.

The smartest way to restore sanity to airport security is to provide greater incentives for travelers to become PreCheck qualified. What worked for the TSA in the past can be revised to accommodate new changes in transportation security and increase screening effectiveness. All that is needed is a team of dedicated scientists well versed in operations research and advanced analytics, and the necessary data, to effect such transformation.


Sheldon Jacobson, Ph.D., is an expert on risk-based aviation security and a Founder Professor in Computer Science in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a Fellow of INFORMS, the leading international association for operations research and analytics professionals, and currently chairs the INFORMS National Science Foundation (NSF) Liaison Committee.



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