This summer I’m traveling by air on five separate trips. One for family needs, two for business, and two for pleasure. So I figured it’s about time I enrolled in TSA’s “Pre-check” program.
Wait-times have been making the news this weekend, with ridiculous waits for security that exceed an hour. Some went for two hours in line, and many missed flights. Why? Well, because funding for agents was decreased by Congress, in its infinite desire to “cut government waste”! So while 7000 spots go unfilled, the number of passengers has increased with the improved economy. Simple arithmetic. Even a third-grader can figure this out.
When asked for an explanation, TSA stated that they thought that more people would sign up for Pre-check, and so they would need fewer agents. Really? Read on.
I’d been lucky enough to get pre-check status a few random times and always appreciated the speed-through, although at the JetBlue Terminal 5 in JFK in New York they awkwardly made the lucky traveler cut in line in front of people loading their shoes and plastic baggies with toiletries onto the conveyor belts, instead of having a separate screening. Of course JFK is notorious–I watched an officious TSA agent demand that a 5-year-old answer the questions of where he was going, angrily shushing his mother when she tried to answer for him– so we can’t judge everything by JFK’s Terminal 5.
But with all this travel looming, including two trips involving Terminal 5, I decided that the time had come. I diligently filled out the form on line, and being felony-conviction-free was able to agree to anything and everything. Then came scheduling the appointment.
Joy! There is a center 2 miles from where I live. I clicked. No appointments came up. Was I doing something wrong? No, here was an appointment, for 6 weeks from now! I clicked. Nope. No appointments. But they took walk-ins! Hooray!
The next morning I was there at ten fifteen in the morning, shortly after they opened. Our “center” is located in an HR Block office. There were thirty-two people waiting. I hoped that they were there to get their taxes done late. No such luck.
A half an hour after I had arrived and signed in, a man came to the front. “Who are these people?” He read off four or five first names, including mine. I raised my hand. “Why did you sign in on the appointments page? You don’t have appointments.”
“I wrote a W, where it says, ‘Appointment A or Walk-in W?'” I said.
“Well this isn’t the way we do things here. I’m taking this now and putting up a No More Walk-Ins sign,” he said, taking the sign in sheet. “And all you folks with appointments, come up and put your names on this new sheet.”
“My appointment was for a half an hour ago,” one woman said, as four people got up.
“We’re running behind. An appointment takes ten minutes. But the system shut down, so we’re about forty minutes behind. And as for you walk-ins,” he added with something like glee, “you’re not going to get seen today. Or maybe, if you’re still here at seven tonight, maybe we’ll see you then. But we close at seven.”
I was the last on the walk-in list, and it was eleven in the morning. “Are you the only one working here?” I asked.
“I work for HR Block. That’s who pays me, if that’s what you want to know. I just help out here.” I blinked at him, and he got the message. “There’s an agent they flew in from Tennessee who’s doing the interviews. But she’s the only one, and like I said, we aren’t going to get to many of you.”
“I couldn’t get an appointment,” a woman said.
“Someone beat you to the last one, then,” he chortled. “Keep trying. They only set them out forty-five days. So keep at it. Or here, call this number.” He handed her a square of paper. Ten people got up to take the little squares.
“The number doesn’t work,” the woman said after immediately trying it. “It says all circuits are busy.”
“That’s because everyone wants an appointment,” he answered. We put the little squares back.
“Should I come back later?” another walk-in asked. She looked to be about seventy five. In fact, except for four people, all the other people waiting were definitely senior citizens.
“If you leave and we call your name you’re out of luck. You miss your turn.”
She sighed and sat back down. I sat for a while. The woman next to me, the one with the appointment, asked if I was going to stay. “I want to see one person called in, then I’m going.”
Five minutes later two women emerged from the back. The newly interviewed Pre-check candidate mopped her brow, smiled and left shaking her head. She’d been back there for forty minutes, waiting for the system to come back up.
And the other, a tall blonde woman, picked up the appointment list. She shook her head, and in a soft Tennessee accent said, “I’m sorry. We just won’t get to the walk-ins today.” She repeated everything the HR Block employee had told us, and again shaking her head, called the woman seated next to me.
“Good luck,” she whispered to me.
“You too,” I answered as I packed up. When I got back to my computer I tried again. An appointment for 44 days from today! I clicked. Nope. I tried again. An appointment for 45 days from today, at 6:10 pm. I clicked quicker this time.
Success! The glorious moment when the system accepted my request had arrived. Two of my trips will have already taken place, and the third will be a week away…and they say it takes at least two weeks after the appointment to get the clearance.
Meanwhile, the lines grow longer, and the system, such as it is, moves slower and slower. Hassle-free? Don’t make me laugh.