Many travelers will kick off their vacations with that dreaded foray through airport security for screening and scanning. According to Airlines for America, an industry trade association, more than 200 million people will fly on US airlines this summer, 26.8 million of them on international flights. Like last year, travelers need to anticipate long security lines.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been trying to ease the pain — at least for a subset of “trusted” travelers. But security procedures vary at different checkpoints (even within the same airport) and policies seem to change continually as the agency embraces a new risk-based, more efficient approach, focusing its resources on those who appear to pose the greatest threats.
There are exceptions to every rule: TSA acknowledges on its website that security measures are “random and unpredictable” by design. Yet advance planning can minimize some of the hassles. Here are some ways to help expedite your passage.
■ Avoid traveling during peak times to peak destinations. Europe, Hawaii, and Canada are peak summer destinations.
■ Before your trip, familiarize yourself with updated TSA procedures, including prohibited carry-on items, by visiting www.tsa.gov. Download the MyTSA smartphone app from iTunes or visit apps.tsa.dhs.gov/mytsa for current information on what you can bring, airport delays, and real-time waiting times at specific checkpoints.
■ Some airlines offer first-class and elite passengers priority check-in, security, and boarding, so check with your carrier. For example, American Airlines has Flagship Check-In (now available only at Los Angeles International Airport) that offers expedited security access for eligible passengers. US Airways allows ordinary passengers to pay $10 per person, per direction, at certain gate locations for a PreferredAccess program that includes similar benefits.
■ If you or someone traveling with you is disabled, contact TSA Cares (toll-free at 855-787-2227) 72 hours before flying to know what to anticipate in terms of screening, and so that TSA can facilitate the process upon your arrival at the airport.
■ Familiarize yourself with special TSA procedures for traveling with children under age 12. They do not have to remove shoes, can make multiple passes through the metal detector if the alarm sounds, and will not be separated from their parents. If you are traveling with small children, collapse all equipment (strollers, car seats, etc.) before you go through security.
■ Fewer pat-downs for people over age 75. TSA announced a nationwide rollout (over this summer) of its pilot program allowing this group to pass through security with light jackets or outerwear.
■ TSA is piloting modified screening procedures for “known crewmember” pilots and providing TSA Pre✓™ screening benefits to active duty US military personnel traveling through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Some critics argue that the agency is creating a two-tier system, with more affluent travelers, with more money and miles, moving to the front of the line. “The larger issue here is really whether the TSA can implement a way to shorten security lines for everyone, so as to make priority lanes at checkpoints unnecessary,” says Warren Chang, vice president and general manager of Fly.com.
Read Part 2 of this article — Do you qualify for TSA Pre-Check.
[Both parts of this article previously appeared in the Travel Section of the Boston Globe on Sunday, July 1, 2012.]