Keep Your Shoes On: A Return to Hassle-Free Flights

TSA's PreCheck program allows fliers to get through security faster.

Feb. 16, 2012 -- Here's an airport hassle you don't hear about every day: A woman claims she missed her flight out of Rock Springs, Wy., because there were no female security officers to do a pat-down if needed. She wound up driving to Denver, 350 miles away.

Too bad, huh? Not so fast.

Tiny airports like Rock Springs don't have 24-hour security, so the Transportation Security Administration takes its cue from the airlines. In this case, the TSA said SkyWest told security to call it a day, since no more passengers were expected and the last flight out was ready to take off. The woman in question got to the airport 35 minutes before departure, which the airline said was too late.

Any of you remember breezing to the airport a mere five minutes before take off? Now what would you say if I told you we might see a return to those days of yore? And a fast, easy security experience that lets you keep your shoes on?

It can happen. I know. I did it just a few weeks ago.

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I'm talking about the TSA's new experimental PreCheck program, initially available only at Atlanta, Dallas, Miami and Detroit airports, and now being expanded to other 28 airports, including big ones like JFK, LaGuardia, LAX, Chicago's O'Hare, and plenty of smaller ones too.

The easiest way to get this expedited security experience is to fly enough to become an elite miles member (another good reason to join these airline programs). All you do then is wait for an invitation. Mine came from American Airlines, and it didn't cost me a dime. Delta is also part of this grand experiment, and Alaska Airlines, United and US Airways will be participating soon.

You provide so-called personal information, which is the same kind of stuff you offer up when you join a miles program anyway, and then it's off to the PreCheck lanes for you. Besides getting your own security lane, you can:

• Keep your shoes on• Keep your liquids in your bag• Keep your belt on• Keep your wallet on your person• Keep your jacket on• Keep your laptop in its case• In many cases, it's just a stroll through the metal detector

Hmm. Times have changed when little things like this can make us happy, but - they do!

And what if you're not an elite miles member? You can still enjoy life in the fast lane by enrolling in government programs like Sentri, Nexus and Global Entry, and last summer, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency made this a little easier by introducing a single 'trusted traveler' sign-up application called GOES (Global Online Enrollment System).

Yes, there are fees associated with these government programs, plus it's a pain in the butt to fill out the application but here's the thing: It's a one-time pain, as compared to the ongoing agony of long security lines, flight after flight.

There are some exceptions to this breezy security experience - aren't there always? According to the TSA, no one is guaranteed a place in a PreCheck line as the agency "will always incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport." The good news is, a quarter of a million passengers have waltzed through PreCheck and they love it. Me too; it reminds me of what flying used to be like in the freewheeling days before 9/11.

Is there more you can do to recaptures the good old days of flying (besides writing to ABC to say please don't cancel 'Pan Am')? Here's a weird idea that will strike a chord among those old enough to remember flying in half-empty planes with plenty of room to spread out:

The long-haul, low-cost carrier AirAsia X is now offering passengers the option of requesting unoccupied seats next to them, for a fee of course. But think of it: For about 20 bucks, you could have your very own empty seat next to you and when's the last time that happened? Unfortunately, the airline can't guarantee the seat will remain empty but if it does get filled you receive an automatic refund.

One final thought on zipping through the airport, and this one's totally free: Use a carry-on bag. OK, use it on every airline except Spirit, which charges a whopping $20 to $45 per tote, depending on where and when you pay the fee.

How to make the most of a carry-on? I recently read suggestions that call for using vacuum-sealed bags, the better to cram more clothes in your bag, and for stuffing jacket pockets with everything from 3-ounce liquid bottles to all your underwear.

Let's just hope a new business associate doesn't ask you for a business card, and you find yourself presenting him with a pair of boxers.