SAN JOSE -- Some airline passengers can now keep their shoes on as they race through special checkpoints at Mineta San Jose International Airport. Rhonda Stovey learned Wednesday that she is among the chosen.
"This is fantastic!" she said as she walked into a TSA line with absolutely nobody in front of her. "I won't have to take off my coat. I won't have to take my laptop out of my bag." And she didn't have to pay an extra dime -- not to her airline, not to the Transportation Security Administration, not to the airport. Nobody. The health care information technologist from Dallas didn't even know she had been approved for the speedy check-ins until she printed her boarding pass at the airport.
"This is an early holiday gift," she said, practically laughing out loud at the pleasant surprise.
The TSA opened its first "PreCheck"lane at Mineta for passengers like Stovey who had been approved beforehand by their airlines and cleared by the federal agency. By the envious looks of passengers waiting in the regular lines at Terminal A, it's safe to say lots of passengers will be clamoring for the expedited service soon.
"We're anticipating that," said TSA spokesman Nico Melendez. "We'll be ready."
Actually, the agency says it already has screened 18 million passengers at 100 airports since the pre-check program launched two years ago. Melendez said the agency started slowly with pilot programs to make sure safety wasn't compromised and is now ready to expand to another 100 airports.
The pre-check lane's debut at SJC was remarkably speedy, sort of like racing a turbocharged sports sedan against a trolley car filled with grumpy people.
Pre-check passengers whisked right by them in a dedicated lane, handed their specially coded boarding passes and identification cards to a dedicated TSA agent and then proceeded straight to X-ray machines reserved just for them. With few exceptions, they got through without having to remove shoes, light coats, belts or laptops from carry-on bags.
One businessman ready to walk through the security machine tugged on his tweed sport coat and said, "Watch this." At the other end he boasted, "A clear shot!" However, Melendez said every passenger won't skate through so easily. Some will be pulled aside if agents spot something suspicious on their person or luggage.
For most ordinary passengers, getting into the TSA fast lanes will be more or less a matter of luck for now, at least until they are allowed to apply for the privilege. Melendez said most selected passengers up to now are U.S. citizens enrolled in frequent-flier programs and deemed trustworthy by participating airlines. They also passed additional TSA screenings, Melendez said. Other pre-check passengers already belong to a handful of existing "trusted traveler" programs run by American and Canadian agencies and airlines.
Melendez said millions more passengers will be able to apply for the pre-check lanes through a TSA registration process that should be up and running by the end of the year. However, he couldn't put an exact date to it.
Participating airlines at SJC include Southwest, American, Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian, United, US Airways and Virgin American. JetBlue is expected soon.
Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767, and follow him on Twitter.com/joerodmercury.
For more information about the Transportation Safety Administration's new Pre expedited check-in process, visit www.tsa.gov. Airlines select passengers right now but the agency will start accepting individual applications later this year.