Pay United for early boarding, get TSA prescreened

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.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

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.

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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.

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