Pay United for early boarding, get TSA prescreened

Pay United for early boarding, get TSA prescreened

Summary: On a recent business trip I decided to pay for the privilege of boarding the United flight early. Boy was I surprised to see 'TSA Precheck' appear on my boarding pass.


Taking a flight can be a stressful experience. Most everyone carries bags on the flight to avoid the expense and hassles of checking luggage. Those of us without special elite status on the airline board last, and that means the space in overhead bins for the carryon bags is often full when we get onboard.

United boarding pass 1
(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

United Airlines will let you jump the boarding queue if you pay them extra on each flight. It’s called Premium Access, and it lets you jump the line and board right after first class passengers. This gets you on the plane when the overhead bins are mostly empty, ensuring you can put your carryon bag in a bin near your seat. Given the hassles of getting to the airport, clearing security, and boarding the plane, this extra cost service relieves one of the burdens of flying.

See related: Traveling with mobile gear: Tips from a veteran 5 tips to travel smart with mobile gear

I recently purchased Premium Access on a round trip with United, and was surprised when I downloaded the boarding pass for the first flight to see I also got prescreened by the TSA. It said so right on the boarding pass (see image above), and this turned the early boarding into a very pleasant flying experience.

The information from United doesn't indicate such screening will happen with Premium Access; all it indicates is that you have access to "exclusive security lanes." I interpreted this to mean a short line but had no idea it would include TSA prescreening. There's no indication this happens to everyone who purchases Premium Access.

TSA Prescreening is the program for frequent flyers that lets those who, once approved, avoid the hassles at the airport security line. It lets you keep on your jacket, shoes, and belt when you walk through security. You leave your laptop in your carryon as it passes through the X-ray machine. Just put your carryon on the conveyor belt, casually stroll to the end, and get your bag.

Normally, you pay the TSA a fee for the advance screening and submit an application for the status which lets you enjoy the easier experience on most flights. They check you out and make sure you’re not one of the bad guys before approving you. Frequent business travelers should definitely apply for this status.

That’s why I was surprised to see I had been prescreened by the TSA simply by paying United a relatively low fee ($78) for both my flights. I didn’t submit an application to the TSA, nor did I interact with them in any way. I paid for early boarding on the two flights and had the prescreened indicator appear on my boarding passes.

The ability to skip the normal security process in the airport was wonderful. It turned the normally stressful flying experience into a fairly pleasant one. I walked in, got on the plane, and had a relaxing flight. It was strictly no fuss.

I’m not sure if other airlines have a similar program that gets you prescreened with the TSA. It’s worth checking into when you book your next flight, especially business travelers who don’t fly often enough to make going through the standard TSA application process worthwhile. You might not get the prescreening on every flight but it might be worth the chance.

While I enjoyed the experience on my flight, I'm not sure how this is very secure. It doesn't appear that the TSA was involved in this prescreening. It seems to me that paying to avoid the security measures at the airport could compromise security in general.

Topics: Mobility, Travel Tech

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • I have had

    TSA prescreen notice on my boarding pass for a number of flights without paying extra or submitting paperwork. It just seems random.

    It may have nothing to do with you paying for early boarding
  • TSA Pre more than just through the applications

    With your frequent flyer program such as with united, you can indicate that you want to join and for those flight through that frequent flyer you can get Pre.

    Sometimes during the normal checks you may randomly get Pre from the TSA. The application with TSA you mentioned is way to get it on most any flights. Of course, people may fail the Pre checks in any of the above cases due to a variety of factors.
  • The TSA is security theater

    I don't feel any less safe after hearing that you got precheck status without going through the process. They are just there to give a sense of safety to the masses. I am not aware of them ever catching a terrorist.
    • Should be consistent

      Then you are not very aware. It has happened, and more importantly, it is a deterrent.

      Our security is indeed a lot of dog-and-pony show, but it is also better than we had previously. We should NOT be allowing anyone to bypass security procedures, pre-whatever approved.
      • Totally Disagree

        Apparently a lot of people disagree with your comments vermonter and I'm glad for it. Incidentally I have a Nexus card that allows me to go through the Canadian border without question. I have been pre-screened and interviewed by both Canadian and U.S. border agents. And I will apply for pre-screening for United and other airlines as it becomes available. It makes sense to pre-screen and fingerprint people because the vast majority of people are not threats and it makes no sense to treat these people like the rest of the population.
  • Frightening

    That's horribly frightening to hear that is it so easy to get that Pre-Check approval.

    First of all, it shouldn't be allowed, period. It's a glaring method, not terribly difficult to do, to circumvent security. But if it is allowed, it should only be under very strict conditions.
    • So you think

      That ALL passengers need to be treated as criminals in order to "potentially" (and extremely rarely) catch a criminal? I hope the next time you fly they do a cavity search on you.
      Iman Oldgeek
      • so clever

        I fly routinely, and I don't like the security process any more than anyone else. HOWEVER, I like being on a plane that's hijacked, blown up, or flown into buildings even less (I would assume - It hasn't happened to me yet).

        What I don't like is people being able to bypass the procedures, just because they paid someone some money.
        • have you ever looked at the statistics?

          i dont get how people think it really solves so many issues, when all they wanted to do was make us suffer and they won by giving us the tsa and many other laws that just crack down on the average american.

          take some time to read this:

    • Statistics:

      Firearms undetected by TSA: over a dozen;
      Weapons missed by TSA: in the 100's;
      TSA agents arrested for improper conduct last year alone: >400.

      Keep you paranoia. I'll keep my freedom.
    • Really?

      I paid $100, filled out an application, submitted to a background check that took a week or two, and met with CBP for an in-person interview. The pre-check line still screens you, it just lets you keep your shoes on and a laptop in your bag. Hardly an easy way to circumvent security.

      As for people who don't go through that process, in certain situation the airline will submit for their Freq Fliers to gain Pre-check when they fly that airline. There is some method to provide pre-checking of that passenger before.

      That said, it probably doesn't matter, TSA has never caught a terrorist in their attempts to prevent nursing mothers from carrying breast milk and diabetics from carrying their insulin supplies.
    • People like you

      is primarily why do not go to airports and fly anymore... the 911 hysteria ruinedyour brain (if you had one). oh my, the boogey man may get you. Well f**k, I HOPE he does!
  • TSA "prescreening?" I don't think so.

    Your fee allowed you to bypass the TSA screen. So, when Al Qaeda decides to put a bomb on a plane, they'll just pay to skip the security check. Given you can do that, why bother with any security check? Maybe those checks of 2-year-olds should continue though.
    • Precheck does NOT mean bypass the screen....

      It only means you get "priority handling" such as not having to remove your shoes (speaking from experience - and we did NOT PAY for early boarding!)... So, as others have said, it is NOT associated with paying premium for early boarding.
      Which brings me to the real concern - that of airlines following the "golden rule" (whomever has the gold rules...). It's the same "rule" which the FCC commissioners followed to do away with true net neutrality... So, should we lobby Congress for "boarding equality" as well??? Just sayin.
      • Oh, and BTW, prescreening ALSO....

        means the TSA has investigated your personal background for any indications that you may be a "threat" (which, of course, most of us are not).
        • Sandy

          Status of your head.
          If you truly believe that ... wow :-O

          I'm a million mile traveler. The things you see that link to TSA .....
          Think " mall cop".
          • TSA != Mall Cop

            rhonin, comparing TSA agents to mall cops and other renta-cops is slur to mall cops and renta-cops.
    • Don't Think So

      You make it sound like they'll let anyone through the pre-screening process. I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Your comment sounds like many here who think they can bypass security by paying a little bit of money and that's not what is happening at all. You people should learn about the pre-screening process before you talk about it.

      If you're 20 year old Yemeni National who has spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan here on a travel visa, you probably won't the "OK" from the TSA for pre-boarding, just a guess.

      I don't know anything about James Kendrick's background, but I'm guessing he doesn't exactly fit the profile of a militant muslim hell bent on attacking the United States.
  • united sucks

    Hate that airline.
    • me too

      spent a year in Okinawa, Japan and travelled back to the USA several times... built the miles up... came for my last deployment trip home and they REFUSED to allow me to use them! Claiming others had higher priority than me. Found out who those "others" where. NEVER EVER again United. I'll walk before I pay them a dime again!