The longest line of impatient fliers these days may not be at the airport security.
With security queues growing at airports around the country, fliers have begun flocking to TSA PreCheck enrollment centers nationally – often waiting for hours in cramped offices – in hopes of getting on the vetted list that allows them to skip the main security line at the airport.
Approved PreCheck program fliers, considered low-risk for terrorist acts, are allowed to use a separate, shorter line at airport checkpoints where they do not have to take off shoes or belts or remove laptops from their cases. It costs $85 to enroll in PreCheck for five years.
Enrollment in the 3-year-old program had lagged below expectations, but recent weeks have brought a surge of interest. In the two Sacramento-area offices last week, one on Hurley Way, the other in a West Sacramento shopping strip, some walk-in customers without appointments waited more than two hours to get fingerprinted and show identification.
Those seeking to avoid that wait by reserving appointment times at enrollment centers were, as of last week, finding no appointment openings at the two local centers for more than a month.
An official with the private company that operates the PreCheck enrollment centers for TSA told The Sacramento Bee last week that the number of people making appointments and dropping in to the centers has been on the rise all year, and doubled in the last month.
Centers nationally are now processing more than 15,000 travelers a day. Officials are scrambling to open 30 more centers nationally in the next three months, and to increase staff at existing centers as well, said Charles Carroll, a vice president at MorphoTrust, the company that operates 370 centers nationally for the TSA, including the ones in Sacramento and West Sacramento.
“The long lines at the airports are driving volumes to PreCheck centers a lot faster than anybody anticipated,” Carroll said. “Our company has been in an emergency response mode since mid-May.”
Although the two Sacramento offices are now booked weeks in advance with appointments, there are no current plans to expand in Sacramento, Carroll said. Sacramento doesn’t have the high volumes that some larger communities do.
TSA has been cutting airport screening staff for several years due to budget restrictions. At the same time, air passenger traffic has been on the upswing nationally, causing TSA airport lines to get longer in the last year.
The issue boiled over this spring when checkpoint waits at some airports topped an hour, causing passengers to miss flights and prompting angry airlines executives to challenge TSA to increase staffing and refocus its policies on moving passengers through security areas more smoothly.
During the Memorial Day weekend, the TSA checkpoint line at Sacramento’s Terminal A briefly snaked out of the terminal over the bridgeway and briefly into the parking garage. The Bee timed the Terminal A wait line recently at noon at a half hour. The Terminal B wait times have been shorter, airport officials said.
TSA recently won increased federal funding to hire more screeners, and the agency reports it is making progress in other efforts to reduce security checkpoint waits. But TSA officials warn fliers that they still expect a busy summer and continued long lines at U.S. airports.
The same goes for the PreCheck enrollment offices in Sacramento and elsewhere. In a notice posted on its website, TSA acknowledges those backlogs, urging people to go online and set up appointment times rather than just walk in.
“Due to a significant increase in demand for TSA PreCheck, consumers may experience longer than usual wait times at some enrollment centers,” the agency said. “Centers may not be able to service walk-in applicants when appointment schedules are full.”
People around Sacramento who set up an appointment beforehand say the process is easy.
Brian George from Penryn had an appointment Tuesday afternoon at the West Sacramento office, next to a Lowe’s Home Improvement center, and was in and out in 10 minutes. He said he decided to apply for PreCheck after being caught a couple months ago in a long line at the Nashville airport.
“The line was horrendous,” he said. “We saw people in PreCheck blowing right by, so we were like, ‘All right, we’re going to do it.’ ”
Several people who dropped into the TSA’s Hurley Way office this week without making a reservation, however, found themselves waiting for hours without knowing if they could be squeezed in. The cramped enrollment office shares space with an H&R Block tax office.
Among those was Frank Palumbo of Sacramento. He dropped in on Monday and waited for an hour before he had to leave. He came back Tuesday and waited for two hours before his name was called.
“Someone didn’t show up for an appointment,” he said. Once his name was called, he got signed up “within 10 minutes. It was short and sweet.”
Palumbo plans to fly several times this summer and said he worries about lines he may encounter at airports.
“You’ve been reading how these lines are getting worse and worse,” Palumbo said. “You don’t know how long you have to wait. I’d hate to have to get there two or three hours ahead of time to get through the line.”
The surge in interest in TSA’s PreCheck program has made it more difficult in recent weeks to get a prompt appointment at an enrollment center. Early this month, reservation times at the Sacramento and West Sacramento offices were booked through mid-July.
The process involves filling out an online form on the TSA website, then submitting it to TSA and setting up an appointment at a field office. There, the person must show identification, submit to fingerprinting, and pay the $85 fee.
Several people who signed up recently said the registration officials told them it may take a month before TSA sends them a letter with their PreCheck verification, which includes the person’s Known Traveler Number, or KTN, which the flier will use when purchasing plane tickets, and which will appear on the traveler’s boarding pass.
Carroll, the TSA contractor, however, said fliers can start checking online after a few days to see if they have gotten expedited approval for a KTN number. That’s what happened to Gary and Mary Stevens of Rocklin. After waiting for 2 1/2 hours as walk-ins at the Hurley office last week – where only one employee was processing applicants that day – they got an email the next day saying their application had been expedited. It directed them to a website to get their PreCheck number.
“I’m not sure why they expedited us, it was based on our background,” Stevens said. “The marketing side of it needs to be tuned up a bit, making it more understandable to the public.”
TSA officials say 2.9 million people nationally have enrolled in PreCheck since the government launched the program in 2013.
In addition to the people who enroll to be on the PreCheck list, the TSA randomly chooses fliers on a one-time basis to be allowed to go through PreCheck security line, noting it on the flier’s boarding pass. That practice is being narrowed and refined, TSA’s chief said.
Testifying last week before Congress, TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said that element of the PreCheck program has become more focused on risk. “Managed inclusion was the practice of taking just unknown people and randomly assigning them (one-time PreCheck status). We don’t do that anymore. We do include people who are looked at. They’re looked at through a rules-based calculation, assigned a risk value and granted PreCheck on a one-time basis.”
Sacramento International Airport officials last week said they would like the TSA to open an enrollment center in the airport terminal.
“We are always looking for ways to improve service to our customers and having a PreCheck office on sight would be very convenient for the traveling public,” said airport chief John Wheat.