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Originally published December 4, 2013 at 4:28 PM | Page modified December 4, 2013 at 4:32 PM

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Can you, or can’t you, use your electronics on flights?

Confusion still reigns over airline policies. And PreCheck ‘fast’ security screening confuses some passengers

The New York Times

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We’ve come out of one of the busiest travel periods of the year, and if it showed anything, it was that confusion reigned for passengers.

For example, are you uncertain about when you can use your mobile device on a plane under the new rules? So was the flight attendant on my wife’s connection last week on a United flight out of Dulles International Airport to Binghamton, N.Y., operated by a United contractor called CommutAir.

Passengers have been allowed for the last month under new federal guidelines to use mobile devices from gate to gate aboard planes. And on the first two of my wife’s three connecting flights that day, that was the case. But not so on the final leg, on CommutAir. She reported that the flight attendant insisted that all such devices needed to be turned off “prior to the door closing” — while passengers waited on the plane, whose door did not shut for 15 more minutes.

Still, rather than contemplate the existential dilemma of just how much time might be encompassed by a door not yet closed under a new regulation capriciously followed, let’s consider instead the practical effects of another new innovation — the rush for more widespread use of the PreCheck expedited security lanes to meet the Transportation Security Administration’s goal of having 25 percent of air travelers using the special lanes by the end of the year. (The goal has been met, the TSA says.)

PreCheck confusion

At some airports, you’ll see a merry TSA sign promoting the program. “Keep those shoes on. You busy traveler, you,” the sign reads and shows an outline of two footprints along with the PreCheck logo. And yes, the program is a bonus if you are selected to get the PreCheck boarding-pass coding, which enables you to stroll through the checkpoint with shoes and coat on, keeping your laptop in its case, while not having to take out your toiletries for inspection. PreCheck lanes also use the old-fashioned metal detectors, so users don’t have to submit to those body-scan machines that require you to stand submissively, hands up like a criminal suspect, while a screener gives you orders.

But wow, is there a lot of confusion about PreCheck!

Part of the reason for worse security backups is confusion over PreCheck eligibility since the TSA said it began issuing PreCheck on a random basis to travelers who had not enrolled, but who were vetted through standard security checks.

“You send some people into the PreCheck because now they got it on their passes, but they have no idea what that means, so they take off their shoes and go through the regular drill. Then people behind them get mad because the PreCheck line gets backed up while they put their shoes back on,” a TSA screener told me.

Brian Zack, a reader from Princeton, N.J., says that he sees the rapid PreCheck expansion as “a quintessential example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.” At the Newark airport last week, he noticed that the PreCheck line at the United gates and the United Premier Access line were both “significantly longer” than the regular lines for those without privileges. “If we’re all going to be ‘special,’ we need more security lines devoted to our specialness,” Zack reasoned in an email.

Tim Hillard noticed the same in recent flights out of the airports in Los Angeles and San Francisco. “The expansion of PreCheck has meant that line, in some cases, is now longer than the normal screening lines,” he said, while noticing a man in a PreCheck line who told the agent that he had a medical implant and would “require special screening,” which delayed the expedited line.

The right screening machine

That brings up another aspect of PreCheck. While I am one of those fliers who hate the body-scan machines where you must divest yourself of everything and stand like a perp, those passengers with metallic joint implants welcome body scanners, which detect bulk on a body like things in a pocket, and not specifically metal. In a PreCheck lane with metal detectors, these passengers will routinely trigger the alarm.

A large number of readers took me to task for overlooking the fact that people with artificial joints prefer the body-scan machines (which the TSA says it will maintain at PreCheck areas for those who choose them over metal detectors). “The body scanner is the only way for me to avoid a full-body pat-down,” said Rick Bronstein, who has an artificial knee. “On behalf of the approximately 1 million Americans a year who undergo joint replacement, boo-hiss on metal detectors,” added Sheila Sorvani.

Randomly selected for PreCheck in Minneapolis last month, Joel Strangis, who has a replacement hip, said that “the metal detector was a courtesy that I quickly declined” because of the inevitable, intrusive pat-down that would ensue.

Oh, well! Let’s hope the confusion gets sorted out before the next holiday rush at Christmas and New Year. Having stayed home over the holiday, I note a comment about airport security by a flier named Tina, who tweeted during the Thanksgiving rush: “& I thought my Mom was the most maddening thing I would have to deal with today.”

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