Federal authorities opened up a new security line at the airport Tuesday, this one designed for rapid passage for prescreened passengers with a secret code embedded in their boarding passes.
Just in time for the holiday travel season, Ted Stevens International Airport became the 33rd in the nation to offer the Transportation Security Administration's PreCheck program. Enrolled travelers don't have to suffer the indignity of removing their belts, shoes and light jackets and can keep their laptops and liquids packed up in carry-ons on the journey through the X-ray scanner.
In airports where the program is offered, the PreCheck line usually moves much faster than the others, where people often fumble with several bins for all their stuff.
David Karp, a PreCheck passenger who sped through security Tuesday until he was stopped by reporters, said the expedited line makes a "huge difference" at crowded airports in the Lower 48.
But as TSA officials showed off the operation during a media tour Tuesday, neither they nor an Alaska Airlines official reached later could say exactly how a traveler gets invited by an airline to enroll. Like many other components of TSA's security schemes, the rules are secret, with no obvious means of appeal.
TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers, up from Seattle for the occasion, said there are two ways for travelers to join the program. Five U.S. airlines are authorized by TSA to invite selected frequent flyers into PreCheck. Or a person can apply through one of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Trusted Traveler programs like Global Entry.
All five of the select airlines serve Anchorage: Alaska, Delta, American, United and U.S. Airways. Bobbie Egan, spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines, said a batch of invitations went out over the weekend by email. If you didn't get one, it won't do any good to call up the airline to complain, she said.
"We don't set the criteria -- the TSA sets the criteria for who's invited to participate," Egan said. "It's a TSA program solely."
Jenn, Alaska's Airlines' web-based robotic assistant, was even less helpful. Given this question: "Hey Jenn, how can I get invited by Alaska Airlines to TSA PreCheck," she responded, "The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) PreCheck program is a pilot program offering eligible travelers expedited security screening. To learn more, select the link below." The link: www.tsa.gov/expedited-screening
Dankers said the TSA works with the airlines to identify which frequent flyers are eligible.
"We don't publish that specific criteria. We don't want to give people a roadmap to say if I fly a certain numbers of miles, or take a certain number of trips, I will be invited to be part of this."
Global Entry is available for anyone who doesn't get the email. While the airline programs are free and don't require a traveler to be fingerprinted, that's not the case with Global Entry, Dankers said.
A Global Entry permit costs $100 for five years, she said. The passenger must provide fingerprints and submit to an interview. The nearest Global Entry station is in Seattle, Dankers said. The process can be accomplished during a layover at the airport, she said.
PreCheck is part of TSA's efforts to spend less time screening passengers who pose minimal security risks to allow more time for those who might, Dankers said. Children 12 and under who are with a trusted adult traveler also get to go through the fast lane, she said.
"This particular initiative is really about moving away from a one-size-fits-all and saying if we know more about somebody up front, we can get them prescreened and move them through the checkpoint, focusing our resources on those that we know nothing about," Dankers said.
As he entered the new security lane, Karp showed the boarding pass on his smart phone to the TSA document screener at the initial checkpoint, Kimberly Purcella. She put the coded pass under a laser reader. The machine beeped three times, the signal that the code included information that he was a trusted traveler. Purcella led him into the PreCheck lane, the only passenger there. It took but a moment to get through.
Karp, the president of Northern Air Cargo, was heading to Honolulu -- a business trip, he quickly added. He had been invited to join the PreCheck program as an Alaska Airline frequent flyer, he said.
By year's end, 35 U.S. airports will over the service, Dankers said. The TSA expects that 1 million passenger a month will move through the expedited line. That compares with 1.8 million people who fly everyday, she said.
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.