TSA Pre Makes Airport Travel Relatively Less Terrible

Now that the Eugene Airport has opened a third line for passenger screening, I’d like to suggest a birthday or anniversary gift you may want to give your traveling companion. I was an early adopter of the TSA Pre program and I can’t think of any better gift I’ve given myself in the past decade.

TSA began this program about five years ago as a way to reduce wait times at passenger screening areas. TSA Pre applicants pay $85 for five years of TSA Pre privileges. In return for the registration fee, fingerprints, and a short interview, successful applicants are expedited through the airport screening process.

TSA will sometimes pad the TSA Pre line with regular passengers who are deemed low risk and randomly assigned TSA Pre status for a single flight. You may have received this treatment in previous local flights. They gave you a yellow laminated card and told you to leave your shoes and light jacket on.

In busier airports, which now includes Eugene, there’s a separate TSA Pre line. It moves relatively quickly. The key word here is “relatively,” and it doesn’t in this case mean “somewhat.” It means that however fast or slow the process is on that day, it’s quicker than whatever non-TSA-Pre flyers are enduring.

TSA Pre functions in this way like a carpool lane on a congested highway. They want people in the slow lanes to be asking themselves what they have to do to get in that faster lane over there. They’re stuck, wishing they had whatever it is that you’ve got. I’ll admit it. That can feel good.

“Enduring” was another carefully chosen word. Very few people look forward to airport visits anymore. When my boys were just past toddlers, I would sometimes take them to an airport, just to watch the people. I’ll bet that never happens anymore. Screenings, long lines, assorted scowls — nobody goes to the airport expecting a good time.

TSA Pre doesn’t make those hassles disappear, but it lessens them. The expedited process is strategically placed beside the regular process. Everyone can see that you’re getting special privileges. We’re not supposed to acknowledge such base satisfactions, but it makes the airport process less painful when you can see that you’ve got it better than most.

Airports now resemble shopping malls in December. So many people are feeling so much stress, that you have to remind yourself not to feel what they’re feeling. If you let down your guard, that environment will seep in through your pores and make you feel stressed too.

Once passenger screening is streamlined for you, it’s amazing how much more sane the whole process begins to feel. You have extra time at the gate. You no longer have to leave home so early “just in case.” You might even buy something to read while you relax.

I don’t fly first class very often, but I’ve done it often enough to say that TSA Pre feels a little bit similar. I can also assure you that flying first class will cost you more than $17 per year. It would be especially sweet if a loved one paid the fee, as if to reminded on every flight that somebody believes you’re worthy of special treatment.

There is another point of view, shared by a few friends of mine. They object to the fingerprinting and will not consent to such government intrusions. They stay in the slow lane as a matter of principle.

Others can’t justify a drive to Portland or Roseburg, which are the closest TSA offices where they conduct the short interview. Eugene Airport officials announced that TSA plans to promote TSA Pre in Eugene. Their planned events will include on-site interviews for Eugene applicants. Watch for those announcements and invent other reasons to visit Portland or Roseburg.

If you decide this would be a good gift for your favorite traveling companion, don’t forget to give the same gift to yourself. You wouldn’t want your partner seated at the departure gate, worried that you might not get through the slow lane in time to board the same flight.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.