Posts in the category "Security":

Are TSA PreCheck centers easy-access?

TSA PreCheck Enrollment Center at IND Airport - courtesy TSA

 

No balloons fell from the ceiling last week when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security celebrated the fact that over 500,000 travelers have handed over personal data – and $85 – to join the Transportation Security Administration’s expedited airport screening program since the first public enrollment center opened at Indianapolis International Airport in December 2013.

Today, the Global Gateway Alliance, a group that advocates for improvements at the New York metropolitan area airports, released a report offering TSA advice on how to push the PreCheck enrollment numbers higher.

There are currently about 300 PreCheck application sites nationwide processing, altogether, more than four thousand new applications a day. Twenty-eight of those sites are in airports (LAX and ATL each have two), with many others co-located at pre-existing sites in strip malls, office and industrial parks, and a few chiropractic offices contracted to do credentialing for airport and railroad workers and for truck drivers hauling hazardous materials to and from port facilities.

The range of off-airport sites “makes it easier for the traveling public to apply for TSA PreCheck,” said TSA’s Feinstein. But putting enrollment centers “in places where people actually congregate, which can be conveniently accessed, would raise awareness and participation the program,” the GGA suggests.

In the New York area, the TSA currently has enrollment centers at Terminal C at LaGuardia and in Terminal 4 at JFK. GGA’s report urges TSA to expand throughout area airport terminals “to reach travelers at the point when they are most likely to be thinking about airport security.”

Have you applied for the PreCheck program? How did it go?

(My story about TSA Precheck centers first appeared on USA TODAY).

Sign-ups for TSA PreCheck occur in unusual places

TSA PRECHECK - COURTESY TSA

Have you signed up for TSA’s PreCheck program yet? If you do, you may be in for a surprise when you go to the application center to get fingerprinted and have your documents reviewed. Some of the sites are in strange places – as I found out when researching this story for my At the Airport column on USA TODAY.

 

The Transportation Security Administration is dialing down its program of “free samples” for passage through PreCheck lanes at airports.

Soon the only way to way to guarantee the buzz that comes with keeping your shoes on and your laptop and 3-1-1 baggie in your carry-on at the checkpoint will be to pay for it.

You can do that now through one of the Trusted Traveler Programs offered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection or by paying TSA $85 and visiting a designated application center for fingerprinting and document review.

That’s where things can get interesting.

In 2013, TSA adjusted its contract with MorphoTrustUSA to include the operation of what is now more than 300 (and counting) PreCheck application sites. Twenty-eight of those sites are currently in airports (LAX and ATL each have two) but for efficiency, many of the other PreCheck processing sites are in locations where Morpho was already doing credentialing for transportation workers at airports and railroads, and for truck drivers who haul hazardous materials and access port docks.

Penny Watermeier works for a travel management company in Omaha and was sent to an office in a suburban complex to complete her TSA PreCheck application.

“There were three other people there when I went,” said Watermeier, “Two were doing blood samples for the railroad and there was one other PreCheck candidate. I was in and out of the facility in less than 15 minutes and received my known traveler number within 10 days.”

Declaring the process “seamless and painless,” Watermeier also took the opportunity to do some shopping at Costco, which was across the street.

There was no Costco in sight when Bill Chandler and his wife drove from their home, an hour south of the Tallahassee Regional Airport in Florida, to Valdosta, Ga., to complete the TSA PreCheck process.

“We knew a good restaurant in Valdosta, so being retired, we decided to take a two hour drive, do whatever TSA needed and have lunch and come home,” he said via e-mail.

They imagined a nice day trip, but once they pulled up to the address Google maps directed them to, “We could hardly believe what we saw. We thought it was a scam,” said Chandler.

The couple backed out, drove around, checked their coordinates, and determined they were indeed in the right place.

“We walked in and a child was wailing in a back room. My wife went back and checked to see if the child was OK and I got in line with truck drivers getting permits to haul hazardous materials.”

While a bit unconventional, it was no scam.

“The process was easy and the lady was nice and we promptly received our TSA PreCheck approval in the mail,” said Chandler.

A study of sites listed on the Department of Homeland Security Enrollment Center Locator reveals other convenient, but seemingly non-traditional sign-up locations.

In both Knoxville and Johnson City, Tenn., the enrollment center is inside The UPS Store.

Helpful directions for the enrollment center at the River Wall Mall in South Charleston, W.Va., alert drivers to the fact that the mall entrance is “between Burger King and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts” and that they’ll pass a Mattress Warehouse before arriving at the front door.

In Moline, Ill., travelers and truckers mingle with patients in the waiting room of Birdsell Chiropractic & Acupuncture Clinic.

“We were already doing drug screening and physicals for truck drivers and after sending in some billing we were approached about doing fingerprinting for hazmat and TSA PreCheck,” said company owner Melissa Birdsell in a phone interview between patients.

Because Moline is just a few miles from Davenport, Iowa – the home of a major chiropractic school – the area is densely populated with chiropractors. “So this is a soft way of meeting people in the community, getting some new patients and is better than doing free spinal screenings in the malls,” said Birdsell.

The opportunity to get his company’s services in front of thousands of potential new customers is also what made Mark Hultquist, owner of Computer Renaissance in St. Cloud, Minn., say yes when MorphoTrust came calling in 2008.

“They were moving to computerized fingerprint instead of the old style of fingerprinting with ink and probably approached us because we were a computer store and would be familiar with that technology,” said Hultquist.

Above the fee his company receives for processing PreCheck and other applications, “these programs bring more than 2,000 people a year through our door who would not otherwise even know we exist.”

That cross-promotion of services also works to the advantage of the South Lafourche Library in Cut Off, La., which is located in a former Walmart building that also houses the parish government office that processes PreCheck and other programs used by many of the offshore oil and gas workers that work out of the nearby port.

Although the Enrollment Center Locator points applicants to the library, “our job is to help people and give information, so we’re happy to redirect them to the correct office,” said librarian Katina Gaudet. “But sometimes people who come in here for directions also go home with a library card.”

Since December 2013, when TSA began allowing passengers to passengers to enroll in TSA PreCheck for a fee, close to 475,000 people have signed up, with an additional 4,000 people joining each day, according to the TSA.

Airports working out how to deal with new pot laws

POT SIGN at the Airport

It’s been about six months since specialty shops selling recreational marijuana began operating legally in Colorado. In July, the first batch of shops licensed to sell retail weed will open in Washington State.

Both states prohibit locally-purchased pot from crossing state lines and marijuana remains illegal under the federal laws that also govern the aviation industry.

So as the busy summer travel season begins, we checked in with the TSA and some of the airports in the pot-pioneering states to see how they’re enforcing – or plan to enforce – rules prohibiting passengers from taking pot on a plane.

TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein emphasizes that the agency’s focus remains “terrorism and security threats to the aircraft and its passengers.” And if you search for “marijuana” on the TSA’s “Can I bring my … through the security checkpoint?” tool, you’ll get a message that begins “TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other drugs.”

But if TSA officers discover something – let’s say a small amount of locally-legal pot – in a passenger’s carry-on or checked luggage that may violate the federal law, Feinstein says those officers are required to refer the matter to local enforcement, “whose officials will determine whether to initiate a criminal investigation.”

In an effort to keep travelers from trying, even inadvertently, to take pot through security checkpoints, airports in Colorado have instituted a variety of measures.

In January, Denver International instituted a policy that bans marijuana anywhere on airport property, including pre-security areas where having small amounts of pot would otherwise be allowed. Signs announcing the rules are posted and remind travelers that the airport can impose fines of up to $999.

Denver Airport no pot sign

Word seems to have gotten out: Since the beginning of the year, only ten passengers have been found to have small amounts of marijuana on them at the TSA checkpoints. “The Denver Police Department was called for each person and they all voluntarily complied with our rules by throwing [the pot] away before flying,” said airport spokesman Heath Montgomery.

“We established our rules early and worked to educate people about our expectations. That seems to be an effective combination,” he said.

Other airports in Colorado are reporting much of the same.

At the Colorado Springs Airport, the local police department installed an amnesty box and as well as signs alerting passengers to the laws governing traveling across state lines with marijuana.

“We asking people to voluntarily comply,” said Lt. Catherine Buckley of the Colorado Springs Police Department, “and so far only a small amount – 1.4 grams – has been turned in on one occasion.”

In cooperation with its local sheriff’s department, in January the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport set up signs and an amnesty box as well.

“We haven’t really noticed too much of an issue,” said Brian Grefe, the airport’s assistant aviation director of administration, only that many images of its amnesty box have been showing up online. “It’s been one of our biggest social media hits,” said Grefe.

As Washington State gets ready for its first licensed recreational pot shops to open, “the best lesson it can take from Colorado is that while it is illegal to transport marijuana out of the state, people are still going to inadvertently show up with it at the airport,” said Jeff Price an aviation and security expert and an a professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Price suggests airports in Washington take the approach Denver International adopted, “which is to ban it in the airport but then not prosecute people if they are caught with it – just send them back to their cars or confiscate and dispose of it properly,” or to follow the lead of other airports that have set up pot amnesty boxes at TSA checkpoints.

So far, that’s not what airports in Washington State seem to be planning.

Officials at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport say there are no plans to install amnesty boxes and no plans to change any airport procedures due to the opening of retail pot stores.

“I suppose a passenger could throw their pot in the garbage if they’d like,” said airport spokesman Perry Cooper.

There are no plans to change procedures at the Spokane International Airport either. There, airport police officers who currently encounter travelers with small amounts of medical marijuana “advise them of the option to surrender it to the airport police who can legally destroy it,” said airport spokesman Todd Woodard.

“Transporting marijuana across a state line is a criminal matter not an aviation issue,” said Woodard. “We will not be installing amnesty boxes. Nor will we be erecting signage.”

(My story about airports and pot first appeared as my June At the Airport column on USATODAY.com)

Serene security checkpoint for ORD Airport

It happened at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and and Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Now security checkpoint 3 in Terminal 1 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport has gotten a temporary “chill-out” makeover too.

At least for the summer.

ORD CHECKPOINT

SpringHill Suites by Marriott, working with the Transportation Security Administration and airport advertising companies, has made the checkpoint look more like a relaxing hotel lobby than a sterile airport checkpoint by adding modern furniture, a video wall, calming lighting, soothing music and comfortable seating before and after the checkpoint.

During the promotion, SpringHill Suites has promised to bring over surprises and giveaways so travelers will keep “smiling along their journey.”

It’s all good, except for the fact that the checkpoint lounge will likely not last beyond the busy summer travel season.

ORD CHECKPOINT ORGANGE SOFA

Wrapping luggage may add extra layer of security

courtesy Secure Wrap

Some air travelers might be more determined to fly with only carry-on bags or add extra security to checked baggage after recent news of an alleged theft ring by workers at Los Angeles International Airport.

Others, however, may rely on plastic.

For about $15 per bag, luggage wrapping companies such as Seal & Go, TruStar and Secure Wrap encase suitcases in multiple layers of Saran Wrap-like plastic.

“I do it every time I fly out of San Juan Airport,” said Allisan Konrath, a customer service representative based in Chicago. “When I started years ago, too much luggage was being pilfered before flights.”

Wrapping stands are plentiful at many international airports but hard to find in the U.S. beyond the pre-security Secure Wrap stations in some terminals at Miami, JFK and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, which together wrap about 1.6 million pieces of luggage a year.

A wrapped suitcase might make a baggage handler think twice before rifling through your luggage. However, it won’t stop the Transportation Security Administration from opening your bag if needed.

TSA screens all checked bags using Explosive Detection System (EDS) machines. And while “the vast majority of bags screened by the EDS do not involve any physical inspection, bags that alarm may be opened and inspected before being reintroduced to the system,” said TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein.

In some U.S. airports, Secure Wrap employees re-wrap bags that have been opened by the TSA.

“TSA does a great job of screening all luggage,” said Daniel Valdespino, executive director of Secure Wrap. “But many customers worry about what happens next.”

Wrapping bags may offer some added security, but keep this in mind. “At some point, after all the wrapping and unwrapping and wrapping, that bag will be handled by a human again,” said personal security expert Robert Siciliano. “And humans sometimes steal.”

(My story about wrapping luggage in plastics first appeared on NBC New Travel)

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