TSA works towards hassle-free flying

The Transportation Security Administration is about to expand PreCheck, the program that whisks travelers through special airport security lanes, without the hassles of removing jackets, shoes and belts or taking laptops and liquids out of carry-ons.

Sea-Tac Airport will get a third PreCheck lane soon, in addition to one at Checkpoint 3 near the A and S gates, and a new one opened in early September at Checkpoint 2 near the B and C gates.

Also in the works: an airport enrollment center where TSA will sign-up travelers willing to pay $85 to be vetted as "low risk,'' and become eligible for a five-year membership in PreCheck. 

For everyone else, TSA is moving ahead with a plan to randomly select some for no-hassle screening when they present their boarding passes at security.

This is good news as travelers prepare for the holiday rush, I report in my recent Travel Wise column in The Seattle Times.  The flip side: The new options are works in progress, with changes taking effect at different airports and airlines at different times. 

And remember, TSA's policy of randomly pre-selecting some PreCheck members for full screening, means that even if you pay for membership, there's no guarantee  you'll get to use the special lanes on every flight.

When TSA began PreCheck at 28 U.S. airports in 2012, it limited enrollment to high-mileage frequent flyers invited by select   airlines - Alaska Airlines in Seattle - and  members of the government-run Global Entry and Nexus expedited boarding-crossing programs.

The program has since been expanded to include 40 airports and in Seattle, six airlines: Alaska, Virgin, Delta, American, United and US Airways. Southwest and JetBlue are due to join soon, and TSA plans to add 60 more airports, including Boise and Spokane, by year's end. 

Assuming you fly enough to make paying for fast-pass screening worthwhile, what's the best option? 

If you have a passport, either Global Entry or Nexus provide the most bang for the buck.
Global Entry allows air travelers expedited entry into the U.S. from any foreign country. Nexus is a joint U.S./Canadian program for expedited land and sea border crossings that also includes Global Entry for U.S. citizens.  

Those approved for either are automatically enrolled in PreCheck for five years.  This is something to consider if you're one of those frequent flyers who initially gained PreCheck status through your airline.

By joining Global Entry or Nexus, you'll be eligible for faster screening when flying on all the approved airlines, not just your own. And, says TSA, those vetted through a government application process are likely to be selected for expedited screening more often.

Tip: The application fee for Nexus is $50 versus $100 for Global Entry. Since membership in Nexus automatically makes you eligible to use both Global Entry and PreCheck, you'll save by enrolling in Nexus.

"Applications (made online) can take up to eight weeks for conditional approval," says Mike Milne of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. After that comes a short personal interview and fingerprinting either at Boeing Field or Sea-Tac for Global Entry applicants and Boeing Field for Nexus.

 The process is expected to move more quickly for those who  apply for PreCheck only at airport centers TSA plans to set up later this year and next.Applicants will be asked to fill out an online form with their name, address, birth date, gender, social security number, height, weight, eye and hair color; pay a $85 non-refundable fee and report to an enrollment center to identity verification and fingerprinting. 

TSA expects the vetting process to take 2-3 weeks. Those approved will receive a "known traveler number" good for five years to be used when booking travel.

TSA chose Washington Dulles and Indianapolis International for the first two enrollment locations. No word yet on when a center will open in Seattle. 

Finally, if you want to provide the government with nothing more what you already do when you book a flight -  name, birth date and gender - TSA says it will begin randomly steering some into the fast lanes starting in October.

You'll find out when you get your boarding pass, either by looking for a check mark in cases where the airline provides a code (Delta does, Alaska is working on it), or when you reach checkpoint. 

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