Home >> Travel Troubles >> Never get in the TSA PreCheck line unless you’re approved. Here’s why

Never get in the TSA PreCheck line unless you’re approved. Here’s why

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

It goes without saying that travelers should not get in the TSA PreCheck line unless they’ve been approved for the program. Or does it?


Lara M. contacted our advocacy team with an angry tale of her ejection from the TSA PreCheck line at the airport in Fort Myers. But she doesn’t have TSA PreCheck approval, nor did she get a random invitation on her boarding pass. So why did she get on the line in the first place?

This tale provides a critical lesson in airport etiquette and the importance of understanding the rules and protocols associated with the various security lines maintained by the Transportation Security Administration.

The kids got random TSA PreCheck stamps

“Both of my teenagers got a random TSA PreCheck stamp on their airline tickets, but I did not,” Lara recalled. “The regular security line at Ft Myers was so long before we could even see the TSA PreCheck line. Once we saw where it was, we left the regular line and got in that line.”

Lara says that an American Airlines agent told her that because her children (ages 13 and 16) had randomly received the TSA PreCheck stamp, she could also use this invitation-only security line.

Not true. But we’ll get back to that in a moment.

When she reached the front of the TSA PreCheck line, the agents let her know that she wasn’t going to be allowed through to the other side.

“I had sent my children through the TSA PreCheck line first,” Lara reported. “But when I tried to follow them, the agent yelled at me. She said I wasn’t approved to use this line.”

TSA: “No, you can’t use this line”

Despite her pleas to follow her teenagers, the security agents would not permit it. They redirected her to the regular line to join all the other passengers without TSA PreCheck approval.

To add insult to injury, after Lara found some sympathetic travelers in the regular line who allowed her to step ahead of them, an agent quickly swooped in. He told her that line jumping also was not permitted.

“The TSA agent asked me if I never had schooling. She said there’s no cutting in line,” Lara recalled. “Then she asked me why I thought I was more important than the hundred people behind me. Some guy yelled, ‘let her the f*** through’. And people started clapping. Then I was accused of starting a riot.”

There’s more, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll jump to the end of this saga.

Lara’s line-jumping troubles ended just in time for her to catch her flight. In her letter to our advocacy team, she asked that we advocate with the TSA so that parents should always get to go through the PreCheck line if their children get the random stamp.

“An excellent way to save time and stress”

Of course, airlines and the TSA should not force parents and children to use separate security lines at the airport. But it would appear that Lara misunderstood the random TSA PreCheck stamp on her teenagers’ tickets and what it permitted.

The Transportation Security Administration maintains the TSA PreCheck security lines for prescreened travelers who have applied and paid for the official TSA PreCheck designation. At airports throughout the United States, these passengers can “speed through security.” The agency touts the program as an excellent way for travelers to save “time and stress.”

Keep moving. TSA Pre✓® saves you time and stress.

With a 5-year, $85 membership, you can speed through security and don’t need to remove your:

shoes, laptops, liquids, belts, and light jackets.

Of course, as Lara discovered, it’s also a great way to add time and stress to your travels if you hop in that line uninvited.

How to get TSA PreCheck:

Only after approval can those travelers consistently enjoy all the benefits of the program.

ProTip: In 2023, more premium credit cards and loyalty programs than ever will cover the cost of a member’s TSA PreCheck application. So before paying the fee, review the benefits of any program you belong to, as you may have this bonus.

But Lara has never applied for TSA PreCheck. Nor had her children. So how did they end up with the random stamp on their boarding passes?

Random TSA PreCheck assignments are still a thing

The Transportation Security Authority continues to grant random stamps to some passengers who have been deemed to be low-risk travelers. Like two teenagers.

However, many official TSA PreCheck passengers have expressed great dismay with the practice of providing random travelers with free access to this line.

So something is a bit broken in the current TSA PreCheck program. The agency may be issuing too many random PreCheck stamps, or the resources for this program have not kept pace with the number of travelers officially approved.

What to do if a family member gets a random stamp?

Families who discover one or more members have been granted a random TSA PreCheck stamp will need to decide if they wish to separate during the security process. One random stamp does not grant the designation to the rest of the group.

The Transportation Security Administration clarifies on its website:

I am traveling with my family; can they also use the TSA PreCheck® lane?

Children age 12 and younger may use the TSA PreCheck® lane when traveling with a parent or guardian who has the indicator on their boarding pass.

Passengers between the ages of 13 and 17 who will be traveling on the same reservation as an enrolled parent or guardian may also access the TSA PreCheck® lanes, provided the children have the TSA PreCheck® indicator on their boarding pass.  Children 13 to 17 may be randomly excluded from receiving TSA PreCheck® on their boarding pass.  In these cases, they must go through standard security screening. Children 17 and under who will be traveling alone or without a TSA PreCheck®-eligible parent or guardian must apply for TSA PreCheck® to have access to expedited screening.

Before entering the security screening area, there is typically a TSA agent directing passengers to the correct line. In Lara’s situation, a quick check with that employee could have provided all the clarification that she needed. At that time, she could have chosen for the entire family to remain in the regular security line so as not to be separated from her children.

You could also find a random SSSS stamp on your boarding pass

In case you are wondering, there is also an opposite to the TSA PreCheck stamp.

The agency can randomly pick you for the Secondary Security Screening Selection (SSSS). The SSSS stamp on your boarding pass will require you to spend extra time with the security agents.

The bottom line

Travelers who believe that TSA agents have treated them poorly can file an official complaint directly with the Department of Homeland Security’s Travelers Redress Program. (DHS TRIP).

But if you haven’t applied for TSA PreCheck or received a random stamp, you shouldn’t get into that invitation-only security line.  (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

*Before you go: So you don’t end up in a similar situation at the airport, check out Consumer Rescue’s ultimate guide covering everything you need to know about TSA Precheck, Global Entry, and CLEAR.

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.
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Maria K. Telegdy

In my judgement is self explanatory not to use anything ( especially at an airport) for which someone has no specific access pre-approved.
But what bothers me most is when people trying to line jump.

LiLi

Most of the time I would agree with you on the line jumping thing, but if she came across as more confused than belligerent during this case, and I was there I probably would have offered to let her cut in front of me so she could stay with her kids.

The way the TSA agent jumped in rubs me the wrong way, it feels like they were just trying to escalate the situation.

Of course, this is a one-sided account, so perhaps she was belligerent and someone in line offered to let her go just to get her to be quiet.

SB

Same here. If this traveler was told by an AA rep that they could use the line with their children, it’s not entirely on them for not knowing.

Dan

Reeks of entitlement. The regular line was too long for her liking so she decided she was entitled to cut the line by using a service she didn’t sign up for because the world revolves around her. I’m sure the 100+ people in the regular line also wanted to get through quickly but they didn’t feel entitled to go in the precheck line.

Lara says that an American Airlines agent told her that because her children (ages 13 and 16) had randomly received the TSA PreCheck stamp, she could also use this invitation-only security line.

Of course she says that, she has to justify her actions somehow. American Airline employees don’t work for TSA and I’m sure are advised by their employer to not hand out advice like that.

I hope she gets SSSS’d for a while.

SB

>The regular line was too long for her liking so she decided she was
entitled to cut the line by using a service she didn’t sign up for
because the world revolves around her.

I think this comment reeks.

You’re making quite a few assumptions without having been there and based on snippets of the entire story.

Personally, I think the parent saw that their children had Pre-Check and decided to go with them, when the better decision would have been to just stay together in the security line if the parent didn’t feel their children could handle being seperated for a few minutes.

It also doesn’t excuse the behavior of the TSA agents- they need to act professionally as well, and it seems like they also fell short in this case.

Dan

the parent saw that their children had Pre-Check and decided to go with them

That’s entitlement. Her kids were granted access to a service that typically requires vetting and payment. She was not. Thinking that she could avail herself to this service without the requisite approval and payment is the definition of entitlement. That is “believing oneself to be inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment”.

If her kids got an upgrade to first class, would she think she could sit with them too?? A normal person understands that if you don’t want your party split up you do the thing that everyone in your party has access to.

We’re seeing the same situation, we just have different opinions and morals.

SB

>Her kids were granted access to a service that typically requires vetting and payment. She was not.

Sure, yet why would her teenagers get access to this other line and be separated from their parent in the screening process? If anything, the TSA shouldn’t be doing this to families at all.

Where you’re seeing (and judging) entitlement, I’m seeing a systemic problem. The traveler is claiming they were instructed that if their child had the stamp, they could go through with their child. Even though this was clearly not the TSA saying this to them, it’s reasonable that the traveler would believe the AA Agent if that’s what happened (and for all we know, that’s exactly what happened).

Claiming the parent felt entitled is really a leap in this case, in my opinion. Not everyone is an experienced traveler, and we should be taking the consumer’s report of being told a different thing by AA staff as completely reasonable, especially given the advice that airport staff are known to give that we read about all of the time on this website.

George Schulman

The AA computer and the TSA computer may not have known that she was traveling with her children. In any event, she was not separated from her children. She was free to go through the regular line with them.

Separately, allowing a parent to join TSA qualified children is a security flaw. If we are going to pre-screen folks before they get on airplanes, then each person needs to be screened, regardless of supposed affiliation with others.

SB

When you look over the TSA Pre-Check requirements on their website, it seems like these children weren’t eligible, yet somehow they were both given pre-check when their parent’s didn’t have it.

I agree with your security flaw statement. I also think it’s a security risk to give the children of travelers pre-check when the parent’s don’t have it.

From a consumer advocacy perspective, if the TSA is going to give a child of a parent pre-check, they should also be pre-screening that parent for pre-check. If the parent fails the pre-screen for whatever arbitrary reason the TSA is using on that day, the entire family should fail and go through regular screening.

DChamp56

Quite often, my wife and I get the random Pre-Check added to our tickets. It’s always a nice perk.
Also, JetBlue, when you choose the “more legroom seats”, automatically gives you the Pre-Check.

Terrance Williams

Hello D! One clarification: it’s not Pre-Check, it’s Even More Speed, which is an expedited security line. Carriers don’t decide who randomly qualifies for Pre-Check status.

DChamp56

Good point Terrance. You’re right, it is “Even More Speed”, which in essence, puts you in the Pre-Check line.

jsn55

Oh brother! Bad enough that she doesn’t understand rules and regs, but to raise a fuss and expect CR to DO SOMETHING for her is beyond belief. I too have trouble believing that an AA agent told her it was ‘OK’. Unless she annoyed that agent with her attitude, maybe. Bottom line, why tell the world about the dumb thing you did at the airport? The only ray of sunshine here is that CR had a great opportunity to educate the travelling public. And you did your usual superlative job with tht, Michelle.

Christina Carr

My husband and I both have Pre-Check, but one time I got the dreaded SSSS on my boarding pass. We were traveling from Puerto Vallarta to Sacramento and had to change planes in San Diego, and so had to go through security again. He got in the regular line with me and got chewed out for not being in the Pre-Check line where he belonged. Fortunately, they didn’t make him start over again in the Pre-Check line. After they examined every little thing I had, including each little piece of an onyx chess set, they let us continue on our way, as our names were being called for final boarding on the intercom. Alaska Airlines was kind enough to seat us in their upgraded economy and bring beer. Never did I need beer so badly!

George Schulman

We’ve had TSA pre-check since it was introduced. Every now and then I run into someone in front of me at the first checkpoint who is trying to explain why he or she ought be allowed in.

Here’s the rule. If it doesn’t say pre-check on your ticket, you can’t use the pre-check line.

It does not matter if someone with whom you are traveling has pre-check. It does not matter that you are late for your flight. It does not matter that you are a loyal patriotic American. It does not matter if some unnamed agent for the airline reportedly said you could. The pre-check rule is simpler than the infield fly rule or the soccer offside rule.

On at least two occasions, despite having paid for pre-check, I did not get pre-check. So I just stood in the regular line. And on one occasion, even with TSA pre-check, and with an FBI file dating back to 1964 and various security clearances, I was strip searched. The world did not end.

Michelle Couch-Friedman

Strip searched?? Yikes!! 😬

AJPeabody

On foreign trip, both my wife and I got random precheck for the departing flight and random SSSS on the return flight. When I mentioned this curiosity to the SSSS screener, he smiled and said “Sometimes luck evens out.”

Michelle Couch-Friedman

😜

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