Everybody has a story: Airport security shortcut no way to escape a long wait

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Have you heard of the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program? The idea is to speed up the security line at selected airports. It does away with annoyances like taking off shoes or emptying pockets. You’ll go through a metal detector instead of the imaging machine. It’s your federal government hard at work.

My husband, dubbed “Al Optimist” by me, quickly signed us up online. It could take as much as a month to get the personal appointment we’d need, and we were flying in one month. But there was hope, because TSA does take walk-ins. What they don’t tell you about is the 3- to 3½-hour wait.

Naively, we decided to get the job done. We walked into a dreary room the size of living room. All the seats were taken. Some people hung around outside the door because it was just too crowded.

Undeterred, Al got out our paperwork to show the receptionist. She was young and pleasant. There was no wait in this line. It was necessary to have one’s birth certificate. I had searched everywhere for my original, and eureka! I found it. Guess what? I needed to get an official copy, because my original was the wrong shape to fit into their machine. Nice try, but no prize that day.

Al sent for three copies of my certificate. He seemed obsessed with this PreCheck opportunity. He whisked off a check for $89.

The copies showed up quickly and we were off to the tiny office again. Wise to the wait, I had charged up my trusty iPhone to while away the hours. Trouble is, TSA has no WiFi. We all had to pirate it from the Subway next door.

After checking in, my husband rushed us to Starbucks because, of course, he cannot stand waiting in line. I was afraid to drink any coffee — after seeing the tiny office, I wasn’t sure the government had sprung for a bathroom. I rushed us back in case they called our name early. Not to worry; we now had a 3-hour wait.

People-watching seemed unavoidable. The young man next to me sported a black beanie to hide his dirty hair. He had a thick black beard bunched up into a pink rubber band. He tugged constantly on it to calm his nerves. Another woman coughed so hard I wondered if she had tuberculosis. I was doing my nervous leg-shaking thing. Everybody wore Northwest casual, except for a smart aleck who walked in wearing his leather pilot’s jacket and an arrogant smile. Guess who had an appointment?

One appointment was called about every 15 minutes. My heart leaped with joy every time a fellow traveler walked out smiling. Damn those who sauntered in with appointments! I hurried to the bathroom — thank heaven, it was clean and even had toilet paper — and hurried back, fearful that I would lose my place in the line.

At about 10 a.m., the receptionist placed a big sign on the door: NO MORE WALK-INS TODAY. Dozens of hopeful walk-ins couldn’t believe it and just had to come in to check if it was a mistake. Dozens of times, she explained that they could come during lunch, stand in line until 1 p.m. and take a chance on that afternoon. We who were already on the list glanced smugly at each other.

My husband, sitting across the room, hates waiting in line so much that we must wait in line 3½ hours to avoid waiting in line. Go figure. He is rational, but has had a lapse. We are probably saving 10 minutes in line each time we fly — and how many times would that happen before we could have waltzed in with a personal appointment? It’s not that tough to take one’s shoes off.

Wisely, I kept my opinions to myself.

Finally, our name was called and we went into the inner sanctum. A middle-aged woman greeted us politely and walked us through the process. It included copying the copies of our birth certificates, swearing allegiance to the flag and showing a valid American driver’s license.

Last step: We were digitally fingerprinted. My prints refused to register on the machine. I rubbed them with a special cloth for just such a problem. I was saved by my thumbs. Only two digits are necessary, and they came out clearly enough! One hundred and seventy dollars later, we walked past the poor slobs still waiting.

Al’s letter from the TSA arrived promptly: He is absolved from the general security line for 5 years. Mine has not, and it’s been a lot more than a week. I called the helpful number and they gave me another number. Maybe my thumbprints didn’t cut the mustard. Maybe they sent them to the FBI.

Maybe this means Al will whiz by with his Fast Pass and then wait for me to take off my shoes, empty my pockets and raise my hands for the imaging scanner.


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