TSA

More – and more creative – ways to pay for TSA PreCheck

TSA PreCheck Enrollment Center at IND Airport - courtesy TSATSAS PRECHECK

Enrolling in TSA PreCheck seems to be the #1 solution being proposed to whittle down the wait times in security checkpoint lines in the U.S.

But the $85 fee is a deterrent to many travelers.

Now there are some news ways to cover that fee.

Today, Club Carlson, the rewards program for the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, is announcing that, starting July 1, 2016, program members will be able to swap 65,000 points for an authorization code that can be used towards the $85 application fee for five years of TSA PreCheck.

This may be the first hotel rewards program to offer TSA Precheck as a redemption option, but it is unlikely that it will stand alone for long.

There’s another way travelers can use points instead of cash for the TSA PreCheck fee:

Thanks Again, the program that lets travelers earn points for purchases at airports and exchange them for miles, hotel rewards and Visa prepaid cash cards, now allows members to cash-in Thanks Again Points for TSA Pre-Check at airports across the United States.

“We wanted to give consumers a reward option that saves them more than just money,” said Marc Ellis, Thanks Again CEO, “Expedited screening for Thanks Again members will cut-down the time spent in standard security lines and give travelers an enjoyable travel experience from the very beginning of their journey, making it a win for TSA and security overall.”

It will take 4,250 Thanks Again points to get a TSA PreCheck promotion code from the program app to cover the $85 fee.

“I think redeeming frequent flier points or miles for TSA Pre Check fees is an exceptional idea,” said Jay Sorensen of IdeaWorks, “I also know airlines are considering offering this as a perk for their elite tier members.”

What happens if you use your points (under either program) to get a PreCheck promotion code but get denied during the application process?

The policy is the same as if you paid by cash: no refunds.

 

How to fix the TSA

TSA LINES

Thanks to modern inventions such as ATMS, self-checkout lanes in grocery stores and you-pump gas stations, modern day citizens don’t stand in line very often.

And when they do, it is often willingly at a place like Disney World where a thrilling ride or a charming come-to-life cartoon character is the reward.

That makes waiting in line at airport security checkpoints all the worse.

And fixing the current problems all the more challenging.

I outlined some of the solutions being proposed in a story this week for NBC News, starting with the TSA’s own ten-point list of fixes:

1. Maximizing the use of overtime for TSA officers
2. Hiring more TSA officers, including another 768 this year
3. Additional K-9 teams
4. Allowing Federal Security Directors at airports to use more flexibility in training TSA staff for screening
5. Developing specific plans to cut down on wait times at some of the nation’s busiest airports
6. Reducing carry-on luggage (size and number)
7. Asking airlines for help in non-security tasks
8. Doing more research and development into technology that will increase passenger flow through security
9. Encourage travelers to sign up for TSA PreCheck
10. Working with Congress to get additional resources for the TSA

Some of these ideas are already being put into action and some – like the suggestion that airlines stop charging for checked bags – are getting pushback from airlines, which last year made $3.8 billion from checked bag fees.

Some airports have said they want to opt out of TSA and hire private contractors – who may or may not be better and faster – for checkpoint duties, but that process takes at least a year and, in the end, TSA still oversees the checkpoint operations.

Another idea being discussed is a reservation system for the security lines, much like Disney’s FastPass, which allows park visitors to reserve times for attractions and entertainment.

One airport — in Canada — says it’s already using a similar system with success.

Montreal-Pierre Elliot Trudeau International uses a SecurXpress program that sends passengers a text message containing an appointment time for going through a designated security line.

This helps the airport “modulate traffic at peak times and makes the whole process more seamless for everyone,” said YUL spokesman François-Nicolas Asselin, and is currently being used by up to 500 passengers a day.

Checkpoint reservation systems, and policies that allow families with small children and passengers in danger of missing their flights to move to the front of the line, could help ease tensions on airport security lines, said Richard Larson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who’s sometimes known as “Dr. Queue.”

But he says the circus entertainers, therapy ponies, live music and free snacks some airports are offering to those waiting in long checkpoints lines could backfire.

SAN DIEGO, APRIL, 29, 2016: Members of the Fern Street Circus perform at the San Diego International Airport. Photo: Gary Payne

SAN DIEGO, APRIL, 29, 2016: Members of the Fern Street Circus perform at the San Diego International Airport. Photo: Gary Payne

“It works for Disney in the amusement parks,” said Larson. But passengers who miss flights due to long checkpoint lines may end up being more furious “because they’ll feel like they were being distracted from what’s really important — getting on the plane.”

Airports bring in a circus, sweets & tiny horses

SAN CIRCUS

This story I wrote for NBC News is getting lots of lookers; no doubt because the words “circus” and “TSA” appear close together. Staff at Denver Airport initially told me they were handing out “suckers” in addition to Peppermint Patties and Hershey’s Kisses, but clarified that “lollipops” was really what they meant. Because just imagine what the comments would look like if the terms “circus”, “TSA” and “suckers” were all in the same story….”

With mounting delays around the country being blamed on Transportation Security Administration cutbacks and increased passenger traffic, airports are turning to musical performers and free sweets to keep travelers’ tempers in check.

And some airports are getting a little more creative.

Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is now inviting miniature therapy horses and their handlers from the non-profit Seven Oaks Farms Miniature Therapy Horses program in Hamilton, Ohio to visit the terminals several times a month.

cvg pony

“Animals help reduce stress and anxiety levels and put smiles on people’s faces,” said Mindy Kershner, a spokeswoman for the airport.

“Unlike service animals, who are working and should not be touched, therapy animals can be patted and hugged.”

And while many other airports have therapy dog programs in the terminals, “We figured this is Kentucky, after all, so we need horses,” Kershner said.

San Diego International Airport is bringing in the clowns.

As part of a performing arts residency program, Fern Street Circus will be offering performances, rehearsals and workshops in the airport over the next eight months.

“They are creating content inspired by the traveler experience, so they will constantly be visible, trying out new ideas and interacting with passengers,” said airport spokesman Jonathan Heller. “We certainly think they will be at the checkpoints often, as people waiting in line are a great audience for them!”

Sea-Tac Airport is expanding its popular post-security music program to the pre-security areas, and dipping into its coffers to hire extra staff workers to help TSA with some checkpoint duties, such as bin loading and unloading.

The airport in Atlanta is adding extra music performers in the areas before security, and bringing on more staff members to answers travelers’ questions.

During very busy checkpoint wait times, the team will also be handing out snacks and beverages to passengers in line.

“Passengers in the world’s most traveled airport should not be surprised if they find themselves welcomed, offered a bottled water and provided information by ATL’s general manager,” said airport spokesman Andy Gobeil.

At Denver International Airport, the customer service team now occasionally hands out water, Hershey’s Kisses, Peppermint Patties and lollipops to passengers waiting on long lines.

“We can’t participate in security-related procedures,” said DIA spokesman Heath Montgomery, “but we are talking with the TSA about how we can creatively use airport staff for things like bin management and other non-security tasks.”

(Read the full story here.)

Fliers “tipped” TSA $765,000 in loose change

pan am coin purse

In 2015, passengers in a rush to gather their belongings after going through airport checkpoints left behind more than three-quarters of a million dollars in the plastic buckets and bins at airport security checkpoints.

That $765,759.15 was mostly in the form of loose change. And thanks to a law passed by Congress in 2005, after collecting and tallying the cash, the TSA gets to keep it.

Here’s how much passengers left behind in the past:

2014: $674,841.06
2013: $638,142.64
2012: $531,395.22
2011: $487,869.50
2010: $409,085.56
2009: $432,790.62
2008: $383,413.79

Not interested in tipping the TSA? Then don’t dump the contents of your pockets in the bins. Instead, keep your change in a small change purse and put that into your larger carry-on.

1_Hello Kitty Original Coin Purse

TSA & the things they bring

TSA GUNS

The TSA publishes a report each week on the number of firearms and other prohibited items people try to take with them through security checkpoints at airports.

Last week, March 11-17, 2016, for example, 62 firearms were discovered in carry-on bags at airport checkpoints around the country. 50 of those firearms were loaded and 14 had a round chambered.

Passengers don’t just try to guns with them onto planes. They take inert grenades, really big knives and one person tried to take this with them onto a plane at JFK International Airport in New York:

TSA JFK suspicious can 3-16-16

Looks like something that might explode, right?

According to the TSA Blog, the “organic mass and protruding wires… “ended up being what the traveler described as abstract art.”