Should You Spend $100 to Skip Airport Security Lines?

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TSA Pre Check At Logan Airport
Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesA sign points to the TSA Pre Check Enrollment Center at Boston's Logan Airport.
By Mitch Lipka

Benet Wilson is one of the 2.5 million Americans who have paid a yearly fee to skip security lines at airports and thinks it's worth every penny she paid for a five-year membership in the Global Entry program offered by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection department.

"It's a beautiful thing," says the 50-year-old frequent flier, who writes the AviationQueen.com blog.

Earlier in June, Wilson was traveling back to Washington Dulles International Airport from a conference in Qatar, and walked right past an enormous customs line that had a wait time of nearly an hour.

Instead, she was in a car on her way home about 40 minutes after her plane touched down.

The value of spending $100 for Global Entry comes down to how often you fly. Adding $100 per person plus the application time and in-person interviews probably isn't worth it for a one-time family vacation to Europe.

But those who frequently travel abroad say participation pays off. As an added benefit, participants also have a better chance to minimize security delays on domestic flights.

How It Works

The Global Entry program's automated kiosks require users to answer a couple of on-screen questions, scan passports, place their fingertips on a screen and get a printout to present at the exit. The process takes a couple of minutes.

Kiosks are now available at 44 airports (including 10 in Canada and Ireland).

The time savings can be significant. This year, the average wait time for customs has been about 20 minutes at six major U.S. airports. Yet a Reuters analysis indicates that waits of well over two hours aren't unusual.

Wilson raved about the program, which she said she has participated in since it was a pilot project in 2008. It became permanent in 2012.

"This is one of the best $100 I've spent on travel," she said.

It can take time to get approved. There is a wait time for some applications for Global Entry. The process involves an in-person interview and fingerprinting. An applicant needs to provide basic personal information, plus passport number, driver's license number, employment history, addresses going back five years and five years of international travel history.

Fewer than 5 percent of applicants for Global Entry are denied. Issues that could disqualify an applicant include: criminal charges, customs violations and ongoing investigations by law enforcement. The government could also deny approval if it is unable to document where an applicant has lived, worked, or whether he or she has committed a crime.

Joe Sobin, 47, a travel consultant who works in Denver and New York, said he was on a three-month wait list for an interview in Denver and instead went to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, where he quickly got an appointment.

Global Entry is one of several U.S. Trusted Traveler programs. There are also programs for expedited passage between the United States and Canada and the United States and Mexico.

One obvious hitch with Global Entry comes when a person who is approved travels with others who do not have the same status. Children 12 or under need their own Global Entry identification.

And while the program allows travelers to zip through customs, those who bring luggage on an international flight still have to wait at the baggage claim with everyone else.

For Domestic Travelers

In December, the Transportation Security Administration added its own $85 program aimed at domestic travelers called TSA PreCheck. It now has more than 300,000 members and is enrolling about 3,500 people a day, spokesman Ross Feinstein says. Anyone with Global Entry automatically qualifies.

PreCheck gives participants access to boarding passes which give them a chance to skip the main security line and bypass some screening procedures such as taking off their shoes.

But PreCheck doesn't guarantee a line-skip. Participants must wait until they receive a boarding pass to find out whether they have made the cut for that flight. If the program status is not noted on the boarding pass, a PreCheck participant must wait with everyone else.

One upside: Children who are 12 under may zip through lines with a parent who has PreCheck approval.

PreCheck has the same value proposition as Global Entry. If someone travels enough, it could be worth spending the time to apply and paying $85 for a chance to bypass the main security lines. Some frequent travelers lament that even the "special lines" get bogged down, because other travelers are selected at random to go through, as well.

PreCheck participants must enter a Known Traveler Number when making reservations, or have it saved as part of a profile with the airline.

Applicants for TSA PreCheck must schedule interviews 45 days in advance. PreCheck can be used at 118 U.S. airports on the following 11 airlines: Air Canada, Alaska Airlines (ALK), American Airlines (AAL), Delta Air Lines (DAL), Hawaiian Airlines (HA), JetBlue Airways (JBLU), Southwest Airlines (LUV), Sun Country Airlines, United Airlines (UAL), US Airways and Virgin America.

Should You Spend $100 to Skip Airport Security Lines?
Passengers have come to expect a carry-on baggage fee out of Spirit Airlines (SAVE), the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, carrier whose itineraries are basically a woven fabric of fees. They've even begun to realize they'll get the same treatment from Nevada's Allegiant Air (ALGT).

But Frontier Airlines -- which charges $25 online, $25 to $50 elsewhere -- is tough to take. The airline had been struggling since merging with Midwest Airlines in 2010. It got worse when Frontier slashed its Milwaukee hub to the bone in 2012 and when parent company Republic Airways spun it off into a low-cost carrier that year.

What was once one of the most comfortable flights in the U.S. and one of the best deals in domestic air travel became the airline equivalent of a prepaid calling card. To completely erase any vestige of the airline that passengers once loved, Republic decided to focus on the Philadelphia market by moving to lower-tier airports in Delaware and South Jersey. In October, the airline was sold to a private equity firm.

The New York Times says passengers should relax, and that the low fares more than make up for the inconvenience of a carry-on bag fee. The Times used pre-deregulation fares as a point of comparison and gave its argument all the context of a grandpa who remembers when candy bars cost a nickel. It's still a $25 to $50 carry-on fee char
Fifty bucks for one checked bag on Allegiant Air. Low-cost carrier, my eye. This shouldn't be a surprise coming from an airline that charges $10 to $35 for a carry-on bag when you check it in online (that's $35 to $75 if you just show up with it at the airport), but that makes it no less egregious.

Allegiant argues that its checked bag fees are only $15 to $35 when you check them in online, but seriously? In the age of the check-in kiosk, does anyone honestly believe Allegiant is putting that extra cash into an employee paycheck? It's grift, and even template-setter Spirit Airlines only starts the in-person bag pricing at $45. Frontier, which doesn't quite have the hang of this whole low-cost racket yet, charges only $25 at the airport for that first checked bag.

When passengers started paying $15 for that first checked bag back in 2008, many knew we'd get to $50 someday. Congratulations to Allegiant for being just soulless enough to push up that timetable sooner than anyone expected.
Blame Air Canada (AC.B) for leading the way on ticket change fees. It charges $200, $75-$150 same day

It's not that U.S. carriers are great in this regard. United (UAL) charges a flat $200 and $75 same-day, while Delta's (DAL) change fee starts at $150 and goes as high as $450, but with a $50 charge for same-day service. These scared little Mounties who tremble in fear whenever a Porter Airlines jet powers up on a nearby runway have the audacity to not only charge a major U.S. carrier price on the front end, but to make people cough up as much as $150 if they're put in a position where they have to change flights at the last moment.

Flight snowed in? Oh well, pay us. Tornadoes near the runway? Too bad, pay us. We ran late and made you miss your connection? Too bad, pay us.

If you combined Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, a perp-walked Justin Bieber, that video where Avril Lavigne uses Japanese girls as props and anything Drake has ever done at a Toronto Raptors game, it just might look as bad as this. What happened to you, Canada? You used to be all polite, laid back and helpful. All of a sudden you find some oil sands and it's like Texas North up there. At least the Lone Star State has Southwest Airlines (LUV) and its zero-dollar change fees. All you have is an airline with a heart as cold as a hockey pond and as dark as any Canadian NHL team's building during the Stanley Cup final.

This fee makes sense on Southwest, which has a legacy of cattle-call boarding, but $9 to $40 for American Airlines?

Delta and AirTran each charge $10 for the privilege because some folks just like getting on the plane early and getting situated. It doesn't make them not have to move when the person with the window seat arrives and it doesn't prevent them from getting whacked in the arm by heavy carry-on bags when the other passengers come tromping through, but it lets them decompress.

That's fine. But $40? Considering that parents with children, seniors, people with disabilities and members of the nation's military tend to be seated early to begin with, there's a shallow pool of priority-boarding folks to choose from. Take card-carrying flyer club members with boarding priority out of the equation and you're catering solely to sociopaths: People who are going to treat the armrest like it's a night under the hoop with Roy Hibbert, shatter the kneecaps of the person behind them with their forceful reclining and launch the seat in front of them like a catapult if the person sitting in it dares to recline his- or herself.

It's bad enough that the airline's already validating this individual. Don't pay $40 to be this person.

The standard sleep set of an undersized pillow and blanket used to be offered for free. Then airlines such as US Airways began charging $7 or so for them. Then people got wise and either left without or brought their own.

As a result, airlines have largely eliminated this amenity. Those that still carry pillows and blankets charge $3 to $10 to buy "luxury" amenities that their competitors just don't offer anymore. They're throwbacks to the days when passengers dressed up for flights.

That is how airline passengers were tricked into paying $10 for a blanket and pillow and loving it. We don't blame Virgin America for doing it, but we credit them for working it into a whole freewheeling culture that includes texting flirty messages to passengers and ordering drinks for them from your seat's touchscreen display -- and hooking up with them in the bathroom with your parents on the same flight, in some circumstances.

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