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The TSA race to the gate

By Jamie Gumbrecht and Ann O'Neill, CNN
updated 7:00 AM EST, Sun December 1, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Does TSA Pre-Check really provide a head start over the rest of us travelers?
  • CNN sets two reporters against each other to test the TSA's touted program
  • Follow their journey to see who will win!

Editor's note: CNN writer Ann O'Neill hates to wait in line -- but she loves a challenge. Ann takes on colleague Jamie Gumbrecht to see if her TSA Pre-Check status can whisk her through the airport more quickly than Jamie, who is OK dealing with the regular system.

(CNN) -- Ann O'Neill: I'm competitive. I admit it. I know it's not my most attractive trait, but when I'm in it, I'm in it to win it. So, naturally the idea of a race through airport security appealed to me.

I've got the TSA Pre-Check advantage.

Last Christmas, as I stood in a long line at O'Hare in Chicago, I found myself hating the short-line people and the way they just strolled up, flashed their boarding passes and passed by us, the hoi polloi. I wanted to be special.

So I conducted a full investigation. Well, I Googled. As it turns out, all it took was a passport, a clean record and $100. By summer, I was a short-liner, too. Officially, the title is Trusted Traveler.

Anyone can apply through U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Global Online Enrollment System. Just type "goes" into your browser. I'm not gonna hold your hand. You're on your own. Like I said, I'm competitive that way. Suffice it to say, if they like you, they invite you in for an interview. If they really like you, you get a card and a number, and a lifetime membership into the short-line class.

Besides feeling special, I had never really tested the value of my Trusted Traveler status beyond a shorter line and the privilege of keeping my shoes on and my laptop in its case as I cruise through the metal detectors at airport security. The Great Race to the Gate was about to change all that.

My worthy opponent was fellow CNN scribe Jamie Gumbrecht. We agreed to dress alike, right down to the same gray Chucks and pack the same items. We would keep a running clock on our iPhones.

CNN decided to hold the race at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport -- the world's busiest airport -- on a Monday morning, usually one of the busiest getaway days. But we raced on Veterans Day, so that might have shortened the lines a bit. We started at about 8:30, traditionally a time when the security lines are at the longest. Let the games begin ...

+++

Jamie Gumbrecht: Here's how I prepared for this race: I bought a ticket. That was about it. No background checks, no interviews, no extra $100 fee. I'm just not a TSA Pre-Check kinda gal.

For the sake of playing along, I packed my bags in a fit of procrastination at 11 p.m. the night before -- like a real trip! I cleaned out the layer of crumpled receipts and broken pens from the bottom of my backpack, charged my laptop and snapped open a fresh quart-sized baggie for my 3 ounces of shampoo and face wash. All set.

I don't waste time feeling annoyed by the TSA. Maybe it's because I took my first flight in October 2001; I've never flown without them.

Now I come and go out of Atlanta several times per year, and the line is almost always long and winding. It's also organized and moving along at a steady clip. The TSA agents often compliment my haircut -- it's a way better look than the mess on my driver's license. I've bumped into friends and neighbors in that line. I've put Polish doughnuts, Christmas presents and still-in-the-box wedding rings through that X-ray machine. Those, like my shoes and computer, have always come out fine on the other side.

I don't mind the people, either. We're all in this together, right? So we offer a little guidance to the bewildered new flier, play defense for the solo dad trying to wrangle his twin toddlers and stand back a moment so that couple can get one last hug before separating. Or, we just zone out and take a few minutes to ourselves while we wait. Not bad at all.

It rarely moves quickly. I was confident that I'd lose the race. But I was also confident I'd have plenty of time to make my flight -- and I only had to plan ahead by a couple hours, not a couple months. I was ready to go. All aboard!

START

Jamie: (8:31 a.m.) I slip through Door S4 and buzz past the new IHOP Express and Yangchuanosaurus skeleton. It's easy, obvious: All paths lead here, the winding Transportation Security Administration corral. (All paths except the one to Pre-Check, I guess. Pffft.) Usually, there's plenty of time in this line to dig out my ID and boarding pass, but not today.

Ann: (8:31 a.m.) And we're off. We come in through door S4. I trot straight ahead, a huge error on my part as I'm used to being dropped at another door. As soon as I see the dinosaur, I realize my mistake: I've lost two precious minutes, and I head off on a run. (I do NOT run.) Usually I just saunter right in the door, check the board for my gate and head right to the TSA short line. This is not good.

ID CHECKPOINT

Jamie: (8:32 a.m.) I breeze right up to the TSA workers seated at a line of podiums, juggle to open my boarding pass on my phone, share a laugh with the officer scrutinizing my face and pop over into the next security line. Two minutes in, no problems at all.

Ann: (8:34 a.m.) Whoa, it took me three minutes to get here, and now I see there's a line. There's never a line. What-the-what? It's the longest I've seen it here at Pre-Check. It's not that bad, really, maybe a couple dozen people, but I miss being able to just walk up and waltz right through. And I'm disoriented because my iPhone update to iOS7 means I have to punch in a passcode and call up my boarding pass all over again once I get to the scanner.

The line, and an extra few seconds of fumbling with my phone, took more than five minutes, but I finally get through. Funny TSA agent tries to comfort me by saying "No rush, I'm here 'til 1:30." Everybody loves a comedienne.

X-RAY AND METAL DETECTOR/ADVANCED IMAGING TECHNOLOGY

Jamie: (8:34 a.m.) Not much happening here, folks. I haven't moved since landing in my single-file security line. We're not tense or panicked, just a quiet, sleepy crowd, clutching our baggies of 3-ounce liquids instead of coffee mugs. But minute after minute, we're still not moving. I count 20 people in front of me, and no one behind me. Did they close this line and forget us?

Ann: (8:38 a.m.) Now we're at another line, there are four of them, each three or four people deep. Darn my smart phone's iOS7, it bumped me off my passbook again. And now, for reasons that mystify me, it is calling up the wrong boarding pass, one to LAX from a month ago. It does it again. And again, costing me precious seconds. What is going on here? I kill it, and the Florida boarding pass comes up and I'm through. It took just a minute, but a couple of people have passed me. Rats.

I'll pick up some serious time here, though. I choose a machine with nobody waiting, load my purse and computer bag in one gray plastic bin and my phones in another. I can leave my sweatshirt on, and my shoes. I can leave my laptop in the bag. I put the roller bag onto the conveyor belt, and I go right through. It's a regular metal detector, not one of those round-about X-ray kinds where you have to hold your hands up. Two minutes, max, and I am on my way.

Jamie: (8:43 a.m.) When we move, we really move. Per the TSA officer's directions, I peel off my hoodie and scarf, loosen my shoelaces, empty my pockets of keys and lip balm and prepare to send it down the line. It's second nature for me, but not for every traveler in front of me.

"Everything out of your pockets?" an officer asked an older man in an injured veterans cap.

"Just my wallet."

"Could you place it in this bin for me? It'll be waiting on the other side," the officer said with a wide smile. These little delays happen every few seconds, but nobody in line seems agitated. We've all been that guy at some point.

It's 8:46 a.m. before my stuff takes its turn through the machine, and 8:49 a.m. before I've held up my hands for a quick scan and made it to the other side. I tug on my shoes, but something is missing: my backpack.

"They had one bag they had to rerun," an officer says. "It'll be right out."

My precious minutes are melting away, but why the rush? It's only 8:51 a.m. when the officer hands over my backpack, and I've got hours till my flight. This is why we plan ahead, right?

ESCALATOR

Ann: (8:41 a.m.) Just one escalator here. It would seem to be an advantage not fighting the crowds, but I'm stuck behind Grandpa Simpson and he's not in any hurry. Move it, Grandpa, there's a race going on here. Why is this escalator so darned pokey anyway?

Jamie: (8:51 a.m.) There's no jockeying through the crowd on this escalator. You just accept your fate and hope the plane train is prompt. Few things would make me happier than to spot Ann here, waiting, but I'm not feeling optimistic. Might as well admire the airport artwork.

PLANE TRAIN

Ann: (8:42 a.m.) Grandpa stops short once he gets his precious self on the plane train, which makes it hard for anyone behind him to get on. I push my way on as the doors close. Whew, just made it. We are headed to B terminal, two stops away. I bend down to say hi to a grumpy baby. Grandpa whacks me on the head with his bag. Ouch! I feel your pain, little man. Baby's mom says he has a cold. That means that in 48 hours, I'll have a cold, too.

Finally it's my stop. Grandpa is getting off here, too. He shuffles ever so slowly.

Jamie: (8:54 a.m.) I spend my train ride chatting with two lovely ladies who complimented my haircut. In our few minutes together, we debate the merits of short vs. long, perm vs. straight, natural vs. dye and the frustration of the "in-between" stages. They're heading to Fort Myers, Florida. When we reach B terminal, though, I wish them safe travels and beeline off the train. This might be my last chance.

SPRINT TO THE GATE

Ann: (8:44 a.m.) I move past Grandpa, cut a corner getting onto the escalator and nice man (perhaps he is a frightened man?) who senses I'm in a hurry and lets me pass. I thank him and tell him he's a gentleman.

I run up, see my gate is on the left (8:45 a.m.) and assume it will be at the far end. Hooray, it's not, I'm delighted to say. I dig into my purse, find my phone, check the time and text my editor. The eagle has landed. Official time, 8:46 a.m.

I'm there in 15 minutes, probably would have made it in 12 if I wasn't a doofus, and hadn't gotten stuck behind Grandpa. Victory is mine, mine, mine.

Jamie: (8:56 a.m.) It takes less than a minute to climb the escalator and see the sign: B1-B18. Ugh. Of course -- OF COURSE -- I'll have to walk all the way to end for B17. But there's a Cafe Intermezzo right here! Maybe I should stop for cake. Because who's the real winner here? The one with plenty of time to board her plane and a slice of red velvet.

But, no, this is a race. I'm actually stunned to see that B17 is immediately on my left, not so far down as I thought!

It's only 8:57 a.m.! And...Hi, Ann.

Don't get trapped by bad holiday weather

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