Trusted Travelers R Us

Once upon a time, back in the golden olden days of the 80s and 90s, I loved to fly. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much money back then so I didn’t get to do it often, but when I did, I truly enjoyed the journey as much as the destination. That all changed – as did so many other aspects of our lives – in 2001, on September 11, to be exact.

Now I have money (and over 100,000 frequent flyer miles) so I’m able to take to the air more often. But now it’s something I dread. After 9/11, flying quickly became fraught with anxiety (would our plane be the next to be taken over by terrorists?). Then, after the initial fears subsided, there were new sources of anxiety. Will I miss my flight because of the long lines at security? How do I juggle all these damn bins for my shoes, laptop, jacket, etc.? Should I get irradiated and humiliated in the body scanner or just let them grope me? (I opted for the latter, which meant I had to wait for a female TSA agent to get there and then listen to her apologize a dozen times for doing a job that I imagine she disliked as much as I did).

I understand that, after such a dramatic and tragic event, some things needed to change. “Airport security” in the 90s was pretty much an oxymoron. You didn’t even have to show ID. I remember running up at the last minute and getting on the plane without even slowing down at security. But what we have now is, as many security experts will tell you, mostly just security theater.

Richard Reid, the infamous “shoe bomber,” puts explosives in his thick soled hiking boots and now I have to take off my strappy sandals and put them in the bin. How does that make sense? Someone tries to smuggle in a liquid explosive and now I have to put my shampoo in 3 oz. bottles and put them in a baggie. Liquid is a state of matter. If someone tried to bring on a brick of C-4 in a solid state, will we no longer be allowed to bring anything solid that’s more than 3 inches square onto the aircraft?

Anyway, you get the point. I’m not a fan of current U.S. airport security practices. One thing I loved when flying from one country to another within Europe was not having to take off my shoes. Even with the other security measures, that one little thing made the whole experience ten times less unpleasant.

Back home, though, air travel is slow, tedious and annoying at best and chaotic and frustrating in way too many cases. So when I discovered there might be a way to avoid that on domestic flights, I decided to go for it. Who cares if it costs $100? I’m more than willing to pay to get back just a little of the hassle-free nature of flying that I enjoyed in the year 2000.

I had been vaguely aware of the “trusted traveler” programs for a long time, but thought they weren’t for me. Global Entry was touted as something for “frequent international travelers” and I never left the country – until a couple of years ago, when I found myself visiting Belgium, Denmark and then England and Scotland. To my surprise, I discovered I liked long flights over the Atlantic, especially overnight ones, when everyone else on the plane goes to sleep and I (who has never been able to sleep in a moving car, train or plane) can kick my shoes off, relax and get a lot of reading and/or writing done. But I still hate that pre-flight airport experience.

So lately, I’d been reading more about the Trusted Traveler programs, as TSA’s expansion of its Pre✓ program to the general public. Pre✓ (a.k.a. Precheck, but TSA usually uses the symbol and I like the way it looks) lets you get in a special line (in those airports where the program has been implemented) where you don’t have to take off your shoes, belt and jacket, take your laptops and liquids out, or even go through the body scanner. In the past, who got Pre✓ status was mostly up to the airlines, who could offer it to their most frequent flyers (i.e., as a way of rewarding their most loyal customers).

Now the TSA is rolling out enrollment centers (so far, just two, at IND and IAD). You pay $85 for five years and have to undergo a background check and in-person interview and fingerprinting. You can find out more about applying for Pre✓ on the TSA website:
http://www.tsa.gov/tsa-precheck 

Global Entry is a U.S. Customs programs, i.e. it’s administered by a different agency. It automatically makes you eligible for Pre✓ at no extra cost, but it also gets you expedited entry back into the U.S. from foreign travel. Instead of standing in the customs line, you can DIY at a kiosk (at the 45 or so airports that support GE). For an extra $15, it’s well worth it if you ever fly internationally. GE costs $100 for five years.

Of course, there are some criteria you have to meet. From the globalentry.gov website, the following can disqualify you from participation:

  • Providing false or incomplete information on the application;
  • Having ever been arrested;
  • Having been convicted of any criminal offense or have pending criminal charges, including outstanding warrants;
  • Having been found in violation of any customs, immigration, or agriculture regulations or laws in any country;
  • Being the subject of an investigation by any federal, state, or local law enforcement agency;
  • Being inadmissible to the U.S. under immigration regulation, including applicants with approved waivers of inadmissibility or parole documentation; or
  • Inability to satisfy CBP of your low-risk status or meet other program requirements.

Those requirements could disqualify many low-risk, law abiding people. I’ve heard of folks being rejected because of an arrest for a parking ticket 20 years in the past – although the wording on the GE website indicates that having any of those conditions may disqualify you, so it seems it’s not an absolutely hard and fast rule.

I don’t fall into any of the disqualification categories, so I went online to the GOES (Global Online Enrollment System) web site, set up an account, and filled out the rather lengthy application. They want to know your personal information, employment history, places you’ve lived in the last 5 years, other countries you’ve visited and so forth. It’s a long but fairly painless process, assuming your life has been pretty stable.

I submitted the application on November 22 and, as this is a federal government web site and given all I’ve heard about how backed up the program is (some people have reported taking six months from application to final approval), sat back for a long wait. To my surprise, three days later I got an email notifying me that my application had been conditionally approved and I had 30 days to schedule an interview – although the interview date itself could be (and might have to be) much further in the future.

I went back to the web site (which, by the way, is very easy to navigate) and clicked on the button to schedule an interview. Since I’m in the Dallas area, I first tried the DFW Airport enrollment station. The earliest available interview slot was March 28 – which, in addition to being my husband’s birthday, was a lot longer than I wanted to wait. I tried the Austin center and found an opening for February 3, which sounded a lot better. Houston had openings in early February, too, but I didn’t really want to drive that far.

I’d heard, though, that new slots open up fairly frequently as people cancel, and you can reschedule, so I kept checking back every day or two. Sure enough, a new opening showed up in Austin for January 8, almost a whole month earlier. I changed to it (a very easy process), but I still wasn’t satisfied. I continued to check the site, and last Monday my diligence was rewarded with an opening on December 20 (yesterday) – at DFW! I grabbed it and prepared myself for a grueling interview.

Well, the only thing even slightly grueling about it was getting to the airport in afternoon traffic on a foggy Friday, and finding the Global Entry office when we got there (Tom went with me for moral support, but hasn’t applied yet). Turns out it’s in terminal D (which makes sense, as that’s DFW’s international terminal), but on the lower level. When you go into the terminal, you can go straight in at “ground level” or go up an escalator, but it’s not that “ground level” they’re talking about when they say lower.

We found an elevator, discovered that we were actually on “3” and the only lower option was “1” (I guess the number 2 has joined 13 as a non-existent floor) so we pushed that one. A short jaunt down the hall to the south, past the International Arrivals port and there was a big sign that said, “Global Entry” and a door emblazoned with the seal of the Department of Homeland Security. And there were about a dozen people sitting in the chairs outside it. I figured I was in for a long wait.

The sign on the door said “register with receptionist” so I pushed it open and went in. There were a number of cubicles and several armed Customs agents milling around. I gave the guy at the desk my name and appointment time (I was 15 minutes early despite the traffic) and went back out to wait. Again I got a surprise; my name was called within 15 minutes and I went back in. An agent took my passport and driver’s license, asked me to take a seat inside, and disappeared into a cubicle. Instructions had said to bring your passport, another form of ID, and the acceptance letter that I had printed out and had in my manila folder. No one ever asked me for the letter.

While I waited, I watched a video that was looping on a nearby screen, showing how to use the Global Entry kiosks. Within 5-10 minutes, I was called back into a cubicle, where I was asked a few questions (whether I’d been arrested or found in violation of customs regulations, countries I’d traveled to, where I planned to travel in the near future) and the agent took my picture and fingerprints.

Because I was freezing – the temperature was in the 60s when we left home and fell almost 20 degrees by the time we reached the airport, and I wasn’t dressed appropriately for 40 degree weather), my prints didn’t register with the electronic scanner. He asked me to “warm up my hands” and try again. The second attempt met with success, he told me I was approved and my number would be active within 24 hours and I’d get a card in the mail in 10 days. He gave me some pamphlets, told me how to register my number with the airlines and TSA, shook my hand, wished me a merry Christmas and sent me on my way.

Who knew it would be that easy? I wish I’d done this years ago – like before the last couple of times I came back from Europe into ATL, which was a nightmare. Now I’m actually looking forward to my next flight, which (unless something comes up in between) will be in May. I was surprised and pleased that a government agency seemed to have actually hit on a way to do something in an efficient and pleasant way. All the agents were friendly – maybe because they’re dealing with people who have already been well screened through all the databases long before we got there – and it was one of the smoothest processes I’ve been involved in lately. Kudos to CBP.

UPDATE
Nothing’s ever quite as simple or easy as it seems, is it? I waited the 10 days, then waited 10 more, since it was the holiday season and things get delayed. I kept checking my application on the GOES web site and it kept showing the status as “pending” – so I knew it wasn’t just a matter of the card getting lost in the mail. I called and the lady I talked to said she’d pass it along to the agent and to call back in a week. I called back and she said the computer was showing “something about waiting for fingerprints.”

I figured that fingerprint scanner that wasn’t working so well due to my cold hands had fallen down on the job and I’d have to go back and do it all over again. However, after being on hold for a while, she came back and said my final approval had gone through and I should get my card in the mail “shortly.”

Sure enough, about a week after that, it finally arrived. It ended up taking over a month from the interview date, but now I’m official! The photo looks awful. Oh, well; I got lucky and actually got good pictures on my driver’s license and passport. I guess you can’t win ‘em all. Can’t wait to fly somewhere and try it out.

DEBRA LITTLEJOHN SHINDER
deb@shinder.net    www.debshinder.com

 

About debshinder

Technology analyst and author, specializing in enterprise security. Author of or contributor to over 25 books, including "Scene of the Cybercrime." Fourteen-year Microsoft MVP, married to Microsoft FTE Tom Shinder, and proud mom of two wonderful grown-up human children and three amazing Japanese Chin pups. In my spare time, I love to travel - especially on cruise ships - and write about my grand adventures.
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