by ELI OKUN
SAN ANTONIO — Last month, Brant Mittler and his wife, Louise Mandel, drove more than 100 miles from their San Antonio home to Victoria, near the Gulf Coast.
Their destination was an industrial building just off the highway, where they waited for a woman in a cramped room to take their fingerprints, their passports and their credit card so they could get expedited, keep-your-shoes-on passage through airport security lines from the Transportation Security Administration.
In all, the task and travel took about eight hours — far longer than the wait in any such line. “I can’t believe that that can’t be done in Austin or San Antonio,” said Mittler, a cardiologist and attorney.
Mittler is one of many Texans who have wondered why no application centers for the TSA’s PreCheck program exist within 100 miles of either Austin or San Antonio. But the agency is now taking steps to change that: A center is slated to open at the Austin airport by the end of the year, and the San Antonio airport is being explored as a possibility, agency officials said.
Currently, the 11 application centers in fast-growing Texas are all around Dallas and Houston or along the Gulf Coast — a geographical quirk that leaves hundreds of thousands of people in cities like Laredo and Amarillo far from a center.
Residents in much of the central and south parts of the state have lived in a kind of application center desert: Victoria, roughly a two-hour drive from San Antonio or Austin, has been the closest option. Two days a week, at the PreCheck application center in Victoria, air travelers can pay $85 to apply for expedited passage through security lines.
“The lack of enrollment centers in two of the largest cities in the United States just doesn’t make sense,” U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, a Republican whose district includes part of Austin, wrote in an email. “Austin is one of the busiest hubs for business travelers, and almost every other large city in the country has a local office to enroll individuals into the program.”
None of the other 30 largest cities in the nation are more than 50 miles away from the nearest PreCheck application center.
But that is the result of coincidence, not intention, and it will soon be changing, according to TSA.
Since the TSA opened up PreCheck application to any eligible fliers in December, the agency has set up more than 275 application centers around the country, including at roughly two dozen airports.
The vast majority of these are non-airport locations that the agency was already using for other programs, like issuing identification cards for transportation workers handling hazardous materials, said TSA press secretary Ross Feinstein. Due to the nature of their work, most of these centers were located near ports.
The agency is now primarily ramping up the number of on-site application centers at airports. Opening each new center entails a long process of negotiating contracts and legal issues, Feinstein said, but the TSA is moving to provide access in Central Texas and elsewhere as quickly as possible. “We do want to expand. We do want to have additional centers,” he said.
The Austin airport already offers an application center for Global Entry, a similar program offering expedited security lines that is intended for frequent international travelers. And Feinstein said several airports larger than Austin-Bergstrom International Airport do not yet have an on-site PreCheck application center either.
The new PreCheck centers are part of the agency’s broader mission to expand PreCheck and similar programs to a large proportion of fliers by the end of 2014.
John Pistole, the agency’s administrator, told a Senate committee in April that 40 percent of fliers received expedited processing through PreCheck or for other reasons. Those fliers include airline personnel, members of the military, civilian employees of the Department of Defense, children under 13 and adults over 74, as well as frequent fliers and members of other traveler programs who had access to PreCheck before its expansion last year.
The program has been lauded for offering low-risk passengers a more efficient way to travel, though some longtime users have blamed the expansion for slowing down the fast lane.
PreCheck lines allow passengers faster trips at about 120 airports and on 11 participating airlines. Travelers do not have to take off belts and light jackets or remove laptops from bags as they move through security scanners.
To be accepted, applicants must clear a background check and pay the application fee. Under the program that began in December, more than 343,000 people had signed up nationwide by last week, Feinstein said.
Though Mittler has now joined their ranks, he wishes the process had not eaten up an entire day. Nonetheless, the next step proceeded quickly: He and his wife received electronic approval the morning after their visit.
ELI OKUN reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.
COVER: A crowded terminal at Austin Bergstrom International Airport. PHOTO by LARRY MILLER