There are few things that speed up air travel, but Lisa Byrne has found one of them: An express lane.
A growing number of Minnesotans like her are traveling out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) using the expedited screening program TSA PreCheck, which allows passengers who pay an $85 fee and submit to a background check to bypass long security lines and avoid the hassle of taking shoes or jackets off.
Out of an average of 30,000 daily passengers at MSP, more than 7,000 are using the program each day — an 8 percent increase from last year, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
"This is well worth it," Byrne said Wednesday before flying to Orlando, Fla. "I think it cuts your time in half."
The program is expected to continue to grow significantly, especially after Twin Cities-based Sun Country announced Wednesday that it's the 11th airline in the nation to offer it to eligible customers.
"One of the stress points people have when traveling is waiting in lines," Sun Country CEO John Fredericksen said, adding that easing that stress benefits both travelers and the airline. "It's a tremendous boon for us."
Unlike regular security lines, the TSA PreCheck lines let passengers deemed low risk skip having to remove their shoes, jackets and belts and take their laptops from cases. The approval is good for five years.
In addition, airline crews, military members, children up to age 12 and travelers 75 and older all automatically have expedited screenings — adding up to a total of 41 percent of MSP travelers now getting expedited screenings, said George Beech, the TSA's assistant federal security director for screening at MSP. Some airline loyalty programs also offer the service to some customers.
"Ideally, we'd get back to the feeling before 9/11," Beech said of the speedier security screenings, "but there will be more security in place."
A PreCheck lane first opened at MSP in January 2012, but the ability to enroll directly with the TSA started in December 2013.
Since January, the TSA has opened four offices across Minnesota where travelers can apply for the program, and so far, 8,736 people have signed up at offices in Roseville, Duluth, St. Cloud and MSP — one of 21 airports in the country with an enrollment center.
Nationwide, nearly 260,000 people have signed up for PreCheck, and PreCheck lanes are at more than 115 airports.
On Wednesday, Steve Bickel was one of the first Sun Country travelers to take advantage of the airline now allowing customers to use PreCheck. Before he boarded a flight from Minneapolis back to his home in Los Angeles, he breezed by a growing line of families, walking directly up to the security checkpoint.
"Anything that makes this more convenient," he said.
But not everyone is a fan.
Peter Greenberg, a national travel expert, called PreCheck a "sad joke among frequent fliers," criticizing the program for having long lines, passengers unfamiliar with it and the random times the TSA disqualifies passengers from the program.
"Hey, I'm either a trusted traveler or I'm not," he wrote.
Other passengers have criticized the service for being available only to those who can afford the $85 fee. Plus, it doesn't speed up the rest of the experience — from navigating the airport to crowded parking lots. In March, MSP officials bumped up the recommended amount of time to show up before a trip by half an hour — 2½ hours total before the flight — in part because of the increase in people traveling and the decrease in the number of federal agents checking passengers due to budget cuts.
TSA officials said Wednesday that PreCheck isn't guaranteed and that random exclusions are just part of ensuring safety. And if the service were free, it would have to be supported by taxpayers.
'This is so easy'
For frequent fliers like Scott Maier of Chicago, the $85 fee is a small price to pay for shorter lines when he's flying twice a month between Chicago and Minneapolis for work and visiting family.
"I saw I don't have to take stuff out and thought, 'Where do I sign up?' " he said as he waited to sign up at the airport's PreCheck center. "I can cut it a little closer" when arriving at the airport.
Byrne, of Minneapolis, and her husband were also sick of the long lines as they travel many times a year to their second home in Orlando. Before flying there Wednesday, Byrne's husband, Joe Oberzut, waited 30 minutes to apply for PreCheck. But Byrne said it was worth it for them both to be able to access the express line.
"Otherwise, I'd be on my third cocktail before he'd get through the line," she said. "At the Orlando airport, it's a zoo, so this is kind of key. This is so easy."