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After nearly three years, O’Hare still lacks TSA PreCheck center

Travelers pass a TSA Precheck checkpoint Monday, July 25, 2016, at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

All of the nation’s 10 busiest airports now house the federal government’s big bet on how to reduce domestic security lines: TSA PreCheck enrollment centers.

All of them, that is, except O’Hare International Airport, where a security screening meltdown in May stranded some travelers in line for hours.

More than 40 other U.S. airports, including Midway Airport, have locations where passengers can apply for clearance to use expedited TSA PreCheck screening lines.

In fact, some of the top 10 airports have housed two PreCheck centers since 2014. That includes airports with more annual travelers than Chicago — like Atlanta — but also ones with fewer fliers, such as Dallas-Fort Worth. Even No. 10 Phoenix has had one such center since 2014.

Transportation Security Administration representatives have talked to O’Hare officials about a permanent enrollment site for nearly three years, since the fall of 2013, a TSA spokesman said.

Unlike its top 10 competitors, O’Hare has been unable to bring home a deal, although city aviation officials and airline partners hope to nail down two centers, in Terminal 1 and Terminal 3, in the near future.

“Gee whiz. How long do they have to talk about it? 2013 is quite a while,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who contends that an airport authority board he wants to create to oversee city airports probably would have produced a site by now.

“It seems bizarre they would not have this at such an important airport,” Waguespack added. “If they want to fill a concession space, they do contracts very quickly with people.”

Waguespack called O’Hare so “cavernous” that a site shouldn’t be hard to find.

The problem is an airport or airlines must provide the space free or charge rent, as long as all parties agree.

O’Hare provided some rent-free but temporary space in Terminal 2 this spring, but it’s still vacant as talks continue over other permanent locations, a city aviation official said. Whether O’Hare or its carriers will charge rent for permanent sites “has not been determined at this time as the locations have not been finalized,” Chicago Department of Aviation spokesman Owen Kilmer said.

“It’s in negotiation,” TSA spokesman Michael McCarthy said. “It’s a business decision where to open these enrollment centers. . . . I’m hopeful there will be one there soon.”

Don’t forget your TSA PreCheck enrollment documents

TSA’s PreCheck contractor, MorphoTrust, thought it was close to one deal with O’Hare in 2014 and a second with United Airlines this year, but both deals fell through, a MorphoTrust spokeswoman said.

United Airlines told MorphoTrust this past spring that it made more sense for MorphoTrust to rent space directly from O’Hare instead of sub-letting United-occupied space, although United does sublet space at other airports for such purposes, an airline spokesman said.

Kilmer said O’Hare never had a 2014 agreement with MorphoTrust for permanent space.

Kilmer said “there is ample opportunity” for appointments at seven non-airport permanent enrollment centers within 33 miles of Chicago, including in Joliet and Hammond, Indiana. Other airports on the 10-busiest list also have multiple non-airport locations, though the Chicago area has more appointments available than other major cities, TSA officials say.

A center visit doesn’t result in immediate clearance. Travelers can wait up to 45 days for a “Known Traveler Number” that gets them into PreCheck’s faster lines. An in-person visit to a center is required because fingerprints are needed for background checks. Most centers take walk-ins and appointments.

Some of the roughly 50,000 travelers a day who connect through O’Hare would likely take advantage of enrolling in PreCheck while waiting for their flight, O’Hare workers say.

“There are people here on business or with connections and they ask all the time if we have an enrollment center,” said Michael Shepski-Lindsted, an O’Hare TSA screener. O’Hare’s temporary, rent-free space drew “a very good turnout,” he said.

TSA opened its first airport PreCheck enrollment center in Indianapolis on Dec. 4, 2013. The agency assumed travelers would swarm to the chance to forgo removing their shoes, jackets, belts, liquids and laptops in exchange for a background check and an $85 fee, good for five years.

O’Hare International Airport was overwhelmed in May as security screeners were unable to keep up with the crush of travelers. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times
O’Hare International Airport was overwhelmed in May as security screeners were unable to keep up with the crush of travelers. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

But after TSA manpower levels fell between 2013 and 2016, critics charged that TSA’s staffing projections reflected some PreCheck enrollments that never materialized. As passenger numbers swelled and TSA manpower shrank, security lines stretched longer, for various reasons, especially this past spring.

That included a May fiasco at O’Hare during which 450 American Airlines passengers missed their flights due to monster-length screening lines. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, among the Illinois powerbrokers to later successfully lobby for more TSA help here, blasted the meltdown wait times of up to three hours as “totally unacceptable” and “totally avoidable.”

“We need to expand the enrollment program,” a chastised TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger told angry congressmen that month. “I don’t think we have enough enrollment centers.”

Such centers are placed in spots intended to capture the greatest audience, TSA officials say.

O’Hare saw the third most passengers in the nation in 2015, behind No. 1 Atlanta and No. 2 Los Angeles — both with two TSA PreCheck centers since 2014. That same year, No. 4 Dallas-Fort Worth launched two such centers and No. 5 John F. Kennedy in New York City opened one.

“I find it hard to believe Kennedy, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas would all get centers and Chicago O’Hare would not,” said one former TSA official who asked not to be named.

“Given the size of O’Hare, it’s ridiculous they don’t have a PreCheck office unless there is something else happening.”

Ginger Evans has made TSA PreCheck a “priority” since Emanuel picked her as Chicago aviation commissioner in the spring of 2015, Kilmer said. Under Evans, he said, Midway opened a temporary center last November to try the concept. O’Hare launched one for about five weeks, starting this past April.

Three days after O’Hare’s temporary center closed shop on May 13, the O’Hare meltdown hit, drawing national headlines.

A permanent Midway center opened in late May at the site of Midway’s temporary one. Another temporary center opened last week in the Hyatt Place Midway, 6550 S. Cicero Ave., for five days.

But O’Hare’s temporary PreCheck center, behind tinted glass doors at the end of Terminal 2’s baggage claim area, today sits vacant.

Asked why the rent-free, successful, temporary O’Hare spot could not be converted to a permanent site, Kilmer said in an email that “finding the optimal location with the most visibility and foot traffic will ensure greater success of the PreCheck program for passengers who wish to enroll at the airport, and [Terminals 1 and 3] will provide that.”

The TSA Precheck program is touted in ads at O’Hare International Airport — but you can’t sign up at the airport, like you can at the other nine airports on the list of the 10 -busiest airports in the United States. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times
The TSA Precheck program is touted in ads at O’Hare International Airport — but you can’t sign up at the airport, like you can at the other nine airports on the list of the 10 -busiest airports in the United States. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times