NEW YORK - It was an eerie feeling to speed through airport security without taking off my shoes, removing my laptop and liquids from my bag or stripping away my belt and suit jacket. Eerie but amazing.
In lines next to me, people danced around in socks, emptied their pockets and fed plastic trays through X-ray machines. But for the first time in more than a decade, I effortlessly passed through security. There wasn't even a line.
As a "trusted traveler" I can race through security at many of the nation's largest airports. But as much as my mom might tell me I'm special, I'm really not. You, too, can get fast-track status if you fly enough, or are willing to spend $100.
The Transportation Security Administration's PreCheck program is open to some elite frequent fliers as well as travelers enrolled in one of the Customs and Border Protection's expedited entry programs: Global Entry, Nexus and Sentri.
These travelers are considered less of a terrorist risk and thus don't have to go through as stringent of a screening process. Speeding them through allows the TSA to dedicate more staff to other passengers, ideally reducing lines for them too. (This is also why the TSA now is letting children 12 and younger and adults 75 and older keep their shoes on.)
But just because you are part of PreCheck, it doesn't mean you get to use it every time. Code embedding in your boarding pass randomly allows you to use the PreCheck lane or requires you to undergo the normal screening. Either way, you get to jump to the front of the line.
The government refuses to say how often the computer randomly accepts or rejects people from the special lane, but Chris McLaughlin, who oversees screening operations at all the nation's airports for the TSA told me "you are afforded this service more often than not."
You still have to walk through a metal detector and bags go through the normal X-ray scan, but liquids and laptops can remain in your suitcase. Belts, shoes and jackets remain on.
"Forget everything we've taught you for the last 10 years," one TSA screener told me.
The TSA also can ask you to go through additional screening; on a recent trip, I was randomly selected to have my hands swabbed to test for explosives.
The program is now at 16 airports. That number is expected to grow to 35 by the end of the year and will include all of the country's largest airports. Right now, it is only available to passengers flying on Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US Airways.
For a list of participating airlines and airports, visit tsa.gov/what_we_do/escreening.shtm .
PreCheck is only good when traveling domestically.
To enroll, frequent fliers should opt-in on the airlines' websites. Eligible travelers will see a box to click on within their online profile, near where their birthdate is stored.
The TSA won't say which elite fliers qualify. But a query of travelers on the frequent flier discussion site MilePoint revealed some who fly as little as 50,000 miles per year have been able to enroll.
Once enrolled, you don't have to re-qualify each year. However the TSA uses undisclosed means to assess your risk before each flight and might not allow you to use the lane.
But you don't have to be an elite flier to participate. I recently joined Global Entry, guaranteeing me the ability to use PreCheck when flying most airlines. When arriving in the United States, Global Entry members can skip the regular immigration lines and go to a kiosk. Their fingerprints are checked with a set on file, they answer a few questions posed on the screen and then head straight to baggage claim.
Applicants have to submit a detailed travel history and other personal information to the government online and then do an in-person interview with customs officials at an airport. The program costs $100 and is good for five years. For more information, visit globalentry.gov.
Yes, there are a few hoops to jump through, but once you do, you'll never dread airport security again. You might even leave the checkpoint with a smile. I did.