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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.