TSA Pre-Check Differences in Non-Precheck Line by Airport


I took my first flights after being approved for TSA Pre-Check. I signed up early in 2020, and then boom... COVID hit. Thus I lost an entire year of Pre-Check because it was not safe to travel with a lot of other people. Since I was not traveling by myself, I chose not to use the dedicated Pre-Check line that is available at the airport. My experience for getting through security varied as I traveled through multiple airports to and from my destination.

In each of the airports, I went through the general security checkpoint and not the Pre-Check Checkpoint. Some of the things that were common at all of the airports when going through the security checkpoint:

  • had to pull down your face mask so they could see your full face when comparing your ID
  • had to have a mask on to be allowed through the checkpoint

What Is TSA Pre-Check?

TSA Pre-Check is a program that you can request to be pre-screened for flights. When you go through security, you do not have to remove your shoes, belts, or jackets. You are also allowed to leave your laptop or other electronics in your carry-on baggage. Ideally, this program is designed for people that fly frequently as it allows you to get through the security checkpoint faster.

In order to sign up for the program, you have to apply online or at an airport, get fingerprinted, photo taken, and pay the $100 fee. If you approved for Pre-Check, you are then given a Known Traveler Number (KTN). The KTN should be kept secret, like your social security number, so that others cannot use it. Also, the KTN at to be provided to the airline that you are flying on. When you have a KTN associated with your boarding pass, you will see the "Pre-Check" logo included on your boarding pass. Then when you go to the airport, you can go through the Pre-Check Checkpoint instead of the General Security Checkpoint.

Why Not Clear?

The reason that I did not sign up for Clear is because every airport does not have Clear available. However, majority (if not all) have Pre-Check as Pre-Check is a program overseen by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration). Clear is a service provided by a private company, thus its implementation at an airport has to be approved by the TSA and that airport's governing body.

Pre-Check at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)

I believe due to COVID and probably other reasons, ATL was doing a modified version of security screening. This version, they gave everyone the Pre-Check protocol for going through security. This means able to keep shoes and jackets on. Also not having to unload larger electronics out of your bag. They had people go through the metal detector as well as the body scanner. From what I could tell, there was not a method to how they determined what device you went though.

A Specific Type of Mask

One thing that really stood out to me was that they were picky about the type of mask that was worn through the checkpoint. I normally wear neck gaiters as a mask because they do not pull on your ears. At this checkpoint, the agent said that I had to wear one that goes around the ears because that's what was preferred and that I could switch back to my neck gaiter once I got through the security checkpoint. She then proceeded to give me a cloth mask that they had for people who did not have masks.

Thus... the government gave me a mask.

Pre-Check at Denver International Airport (DEN) and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)

After scanning my boarding pass and the agent verifying my ID, I was given a red laminated card (SEA) or piece of paper (DEN) that identified me as being Pre-Check approved. Thus I was able to go through the general security checkpoint and get the benefits of Pre-Check like not having to take my shoes off, being able to keep my jacket on, and going through the metal detector instead of the body scanner. Only thing that it did not get me was access to a shorter security line.

Pre-Check at Chicago-Midway International Airport (MDW)

There was no modified measures here. The TSA agent at the gate asked if I knew that I had Pre-Check on my boarding pass. I told her that I did and that some of the other airports would give you a card that noted it if you were flying with others. She said that they did not do that at MDW and that I would be subjected to the same screening as everyone else since I was going through the general security checkpoint. That was not music to my ears, but the band played on. It just so happened that they let some older people who primarily used a wheelchair to get around go before myself and others through the body scanner, which resulted line backing up almost immediately. Once the agents realized that the line was not moving because of the elderly, they let a number of people, myself included, go through the metal detector instead of the body scanner. Essentially I got some of the benefits of Pre-Check, but on a technicality.


It was very interesting to see how different airports do the same checks differently whether you have Pre-Check or not. Especially since the airports have to follow the same federal rules for screening passengers. If I am traveling by myself next time, I will try to go through the Pre-Check line so that I can receive the full benefit of having Pre-Check.

Posted: 2021-05-24
Author: Kenny Robinson