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TSA, airlines speed up security—for a price

TSA agent at Pittsburgh International Airport.
Getty Images
TSA agent at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Speeding through the hated airport security line is getting easier—and for some passengers, less expensive.

The Transportation Security Administration announced in early September that it would more than double its expedited screening program, PreCheck, to 100 from 40 airports by the end of 2013. The agency will also open up applications to all U.S. citizens—currently, access is limited to those invited by a partner airline or who have applied for the Customs and Border Protection's Global Entry program. The expected $85 PreCheck fee would cover five years of eligibility.

The TSA isn't the only one expanding expedited screening options. Biometric identity firm Clear, which was available in five airports at the start of the year, recently launched at the San Antonio Airport and is debuting kiosks this fall at San Jose International Airport and Houston's Bush International and William P. Hobby airports. In the last year, carriers including WestJet, United and Virgin America have also added priority screening lines as a benefit for select travelers.

The appeal is obvious: Travelers gain access to a separate security line, which usually is shorter.

"That really speeds things along," said Ed Perkins, a contributing editor for travel advice site SmarterTravel.com. PreCheck has the added advantage of fewer screening rules. "You don't have to take off your shoes or take your laptop out of its case," he said.

Fliers also have more opportunities to cut the line, cheaply—or at least, more cheaply. In April, Clear announced a partnership with Visa Signature offering cardholders a free six-month trial membership and $60 off the usual $179 annual membership renewal. Some of the qualifying cards, including the Citi Hilton HHonors, don't carry an annual fee. Others do.

(American Express also offers to reimburse Platinum and higher echelon cardholders the $100 Global Entry program fee, although annual fees for those cards start at $450.)

On the airline side, getting into a priority screening line can cost just a few dollars per flight.

"There are priority access lanes for almost every airline," said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com. Where available, anyway—as with other programs, lines are only at select airports and terminals.

Earlier this year, United began selling "Premier Access" services that include access to separate security lines for as little as $9 per flight segment. JetBlue and U.S. Airways are among the other airlines offering a la carte buy-ins, with starting prices of $10.

"Free" access is possible, but requires more a pricier investment up-front. Airlines typically extend priority screening line access as a free perk to elite frequent fliers and travelers with a business- or first-class ticket. Some high-level airline cardholders get it, too. United offers Premier Access as a free service on its $395 United MileagePlus Club card, but not on its $95 Explorer card.

Which line-cutting technique is the best value will vary by your travel habits. Each program's availability varies by airport and terminal, so faster security may only be available for one leg of your trip, if at all, said Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com. Infrequent travelers and those whose itineraries take them through mostly small regional airports may find a la carte purchases are a better value than programs and cards with an annual fee.

Kelly suggests frequent travelers considering PreCheck apply for Global Entry instead. The extra $15 cost gives users expedited clearance through immigration when returning to the United States from travel abroad.

It's worth assessing whether line-cutting really offers an edge, Perkins said. Some programs only speed travelers through the line leading to an agent that checks your ID and boarding pass. Then there's the line for a screening station. Others—such as PreCheck and CLEAR—have an entirely separate line, he said. Programs may also be unavailable during off-peak hours, when there are fewer TSA screening stations open.

Ironically, travelers applying for access to expedited security lines could find themselves waiting—both to apply and be approved, Seaney said. The process involves going to the nearest enrollment center, of which there are few, for fingerprinting and an interview. (GlobalEntry has 36, and TSA plans to open its first two in Washington and Indianapolis airports this fall.) "As more people apply, the processing time could take longer," Kelly said.

By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @KelliGrant.

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