TSA field store helps pass airport time

The Transportation Security Administration is going retail.

I discovered this before a return flight from Las Vegas last week. I’d randomly received a pre-clearance on my electronic boarding pass, something that happens fairly regularly. But not always. I deserve Pre, after all. I’ve probably flown 2 million miles and have a squeaky clean record ever since my birth in the Midwestern U.S of A. But I hadn’t formally signed up for Pre and paid the fee.

Pre, by the way, is the TSA program that lets people go through an expedited screening at the airport in exchange for fingerprints and a background check. TSA charges $100 for five years of Pre clearance. It’s worth every penny.

Heading down the Pre lane to the side of the concourse I encountered a small office, a Pre sign-up store.  I stopped short, looked at my watch, and stepped in. It was staffed by a single TSA employee, an efficient but businesslike woman. I liked the photographs and diagrams of vintage aircraft on the walls, classy and nicely framed.

A few other people were waiting to do their Pre applications. One older couple that looked like frequent travelers commented that they were surprised to see the TSA office right there. Like me, they’d stopped in on a whim.

Unlike me, they had passports with them. I only had my Maryland driver’s license. But the TSA woman said that if my birth state, Ohio, had a an online records sharing system in place, she would be able to sign me up.

Sure enough, she could access Ohio’s vital records and, for an additional charge of $29.50, use them to verify me. I went for it. But, alas, I encountered a bug in the system. Somewhere in the chain of matchings and databases, the sign-up woman got back a message that “they” could not verify my birth certificate based on my mother’s maiden name. I showed her a picture of my birth certificate with my mother’s maiden name clearly on it. No go. I joked, but my mother had been married for several years at the time of my birth. Which is true. Still no go.

To end the pointless bargaining, she handed me back my credit card and license with a look of finality. Case dismissed.  I’ll have to trudge into the Alexandria, Virginia office to sign up after all.

So I commend the TSA for opening up a Pre office at McCarran. But how come not at Reagan National and Dulles? Or O’Hare or LAX?

And they’ve got to get that database issue straightened out. There is no doubt about my mother’s maiden surname. But the incident shows the limitations of data sharing and database matching.

More commentary from Tom Temin

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