How Fast is TSA Pre Check?

23 Apr

We compared wait time values between regular lanes at TSA and TSA’s new PreCheck lanes. For a quick reminder, TSA PreCheck is an expedited screening experience for those deemed to be low risk travelers. While other countries and airports have been doing this for years, TSA finally realized that not every traveler – especially those crafty invalid military veterans, 85 year old seniors, and unaware toddlers – are armed to the teeth with explosives. In exchange for $85 and a prescreening at a physical TSA office, passengers can jump into the TSA PreCheck club. Benefits include keeping your shoes on, keeping your jackets on, and not having to remove liquids and electronics from your bags. You also get to use a metal detector instead of the cancer-fomenting back scanners.

TSA PreCheck works by “carving” out PreCheck lanes from the regular lanes. No new lanes are being built as most airports only have so much real estate available. So the same number of travelers are still processing through the same number of lanes: it’s just that the speed of the PreCheck lanes are *hopefully* faster.

And thus far, they are…. but, there’s a caveat! TSA developed the PreCheck program in October 2011. Since then, it’s been reported that a little over 1 million travelers have signed up, resulting in 30 million visits to PreCheck lanes. If you remember that the US receives 2 million daily travelers at its airports, 30 million is a trivial number. As of this post, there have been 1.86 billion travelers that have passed through US airports since PreCheck’s inception. 30 million thus represents 1.6% of the airport visits.

While admittedly a very slow going adoption curve for a “superior” service, what happens if more people sign up for PreCheck? It is possible that the PreCheck lines could become slower than the regular lines as more people sign up. Without active management of the queues, TSA could become a victim of its own success. More people would have been processed through the old, regular lane than are currently being processed in the new PreCheck lane. So actually, wait times have increased for the time being.

Now the data! We looked at a year’s worth of data across several airports. We examined the maximum wait time for PreCheck lanes against the maximum wait time for regular lanes during the same 30-minute periods. On average, here are the results:

- The waits at PreCheck lines are longer than the regular lines ~4% of the time

- The average wait for a PreCheck passenger is ~36% of the wait for a regular passenger