First flier 'precheck' center opens, so you can keep your shoes on

TAMPA — Savvy air travelers have several options for getting through airport security quicker. One of those is the Transportation Security Administration's "precheck" program, which allows fliers to undergo background checks in advance of their flights, so that they can get into the expedited screening lines at airports.

But Tampa Bay travelers had a problem: There was no local precheck center for them to apply in person. Cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville have such offices.

Now the bay area has one of its own. The TSA is publicizing that its new universal enrollment services center is open for business in Tampa. The application center is at the Tampa Festival Centre at 2525 E Hillsborough Ave., Suite 203. Its hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The facility first opened its doors a few weeks ago, said TSA spokesman Mark Howell, but it was a soft launch to get the operation running. Now officials want to get the word out about the facility to travelers who want to enroll in the program.

"It takes 10 minutes," he said. "They ask you some questions. They check your documents. They take your fingerprints. And in two to three weeks you get a letter in the mail saying whether you've been approved."

Only U.S. citizens can apply, and the fee is $85. If they're approved, their clearance is good for five years. TSA will give those passengers a "known traveler" number that they will use when they book their tickets and get their boarding passes. That will get them into the faster security lines.

Joining the precheck program means those travelers will be eligible to keep their shoes, outerwear and belts on, keep their laptop in its case and keep their liquids in a carry-on. But it's not a guarantee that travelers will always be able to whisk through security. All passengers and their bags, regardless of what security program they're using, are still subject to random TSA screenings.

The new Tampa center will be for those travelers who want to enter the program but haven't been able to do so through other means. For example, airlines recommend certain frequent fliers to the TSA program to allow them to join the precheck program. Fliers who join the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Trusted Traveler program for international travel are automatically enrolled in the TSA's precheck program.

Otherwise, people have to apply in person for the precheck program, and until recently the closest office was in Cape Canaveral.

"We're trying to get people to sign up for the program," Howell said. "We're looking geographically to make it easier for them."

The TSA said its next new universal enrollment services center will likely open in Palmetto in Manatee County, but officials gave no time frame.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, thalji@tampabay.com or @jthalji on Twitter.

First flier 'precheck' center opens, so you can keep your shoes on 03/13/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2014 8:44pm]

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