Every time David Kimball-Stanley and his wife get ready to take a trip by plane, they have the same conversation, spurred by a fundamental divide in their relationship: She has TSA Precheck. He does not.
Usually, if they book their tickets together, Kimball-Stanley will get the designation on his boarding pass, too. But since they can’t be sure until their passes are issued, they always end up talking about what they’ll do if inequity prevails and he doesn’t get the stamp.
Kimball-Stanley, 33, says that in those unlucky instances, his wife, who hates that he won’t submit to the minor hassle of applying to the program, deserts him when they reach the security area. There, he trudges alone down the standard security queue while she breezes through the Precheck line. “I always say she can go ahead, but in a way that sort of suggests I’d be touched if she didn’t, and she doesn’t fall for it,” he told me. “She then complains because I take what is probably an objectively long time getting through security—but it’s also easy for her to say, since she left her shoes on.”
TSA Precheck is one of several systems of air travel stratification that let certain passengers pay for the privilege of shorter lines, fewer day-of inconveniences, and a highly visible partition that separates one class of people from another. For an $85 application fee and their fingerprints, U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents can get a five-year pass to leave their liquids and laptops in their bags, keep their shoes on, and pass through a metal detector rather than a full-body scanner. The Transportation Security Administration turns down less than 1 percent of applicants, for reasons including past criminal offenses and transportation security violations.
At the airport, every moment of interface is a reminder of one’s relative status. There are major injustices, like racial profiling at security, and there are minor insults, like the service discrepancies Precheck and frequent flyer programs create. If you’re traveling alone or with a buddy of similar standing, those smaller inequities are visible but bearable. Maybe you’ll scan the business class seats and give a little “hmph!” when you see they’re almost entirely populated by white men. Maybe four passengers with frequent flyer status on your airline will cut in front of you at the check-in desk. Maybe a TSA agent will press a button for your perceived gender, scanning the contours of your spread-eagled silhouette while your stockinged feet soak up the grime on the airport floor. Maybe you’ll look over to the comparatively dignified Precheck area and grumble about the humiliations of life under surveillance-state capitalism.
But if you and your romantic partner have different statuses, the airport can be much more than a series of trivial degradations one must endure at the start of a vacation. For some mixed-Precheck-status couples, it’s become a crucible—a test of loyalty, a spotlight on income or lifestyle differences, or a reminder that, in a relationship, one party’s personal choices almost always affect the other. A long-awaited getaway can easily turn fraught when it begins with this minor dilemma: Should a Precheck member take her rightful place among the elite in the shorter security line, even if it means leaving her spouse behind?
There’s no clear right or wrong answer to this question. On one hand, it makes no sense for the Precheck partner to suffer through a more invasive security screening just to spend a few more minutes of quality time with her spouse in a longer line. On the other hand, what is a spouse but a designated travel companion on this journey we call life? And unless a Precheck boyfriend is willing to full-on leave his girlfriend at the airport, he’s not getting anywhere faster, in the end. Why leave her alone just to wait for her on the other side?
I asked more than a dozen people in mixed-Precheck-status relationships to think this over with me, and I was surprised to find a near-consensus: Almost all of them said they split up at security when only one member of the couple gets the Precheck stamp. In conversations over Twitter, email, and the phone, some people told me they felt no guilt leaving their partner among the huddled masses, or no resentment when their partner sped through Precheck without them. “No way I’m taking my shoes off if I don’t have to,” said Megan Johnson, 27, of Portland, Oregon. Johnson said she’s taken the middle seat on flights to make up for skedaddling on her fiancé—one of many favors Precheckers told me they perform to mitigate some of the inequities. Sandhya Simhan, 29, said she not only ferries her husband’s electronics through security but also their baby and her diaper bag. She used to wait for him once she passed through the checkpoint but didn’t like idling around the security area for 15 minutes or more, “like a forlorn sailor’s wife.” Now, she prefers to meet him at the gate.
Others told me their status disparity is a recurring source of low-grade tension, especially if the non-Precheck party is eligible for the service and simply chooses not to enroll. They said the Precheck partner feels slowed down at the airport, or the non-Precheck partner feels abandoned at security for the sake of trivial convenience, or one person always nags the other to get Precheck, while the other stubbornly insists that the fingerprinting is an invasion of privacy or not worth the hassle. One man with Precheck told me his wife used to give him a “WTF we’re on vacation death stare” when he’d make a move for the Precheck line in the years before she enrolled. Nick Gray, a 38-year-old entrepreneur in New York City, said his wife insists they get to the airport two hours before a flight, while he’s able to cut it closer with Precheck. He’s trying to get her to apply for Global Entry, a slightly more expensive international program that includes Precheck status, but she’s a teacher and doesn’t have much time for the required in-person interview. “I hate wasting time at the airport,” he said, but “ ‘hacking the system’ just isn’t how she chooses to show up in the world. She could care less about new flight hacks or Clear or Global Entry. She’s happy to just bring a book and read for an hour at the airport.” Arriving at the airport early just to wait in line or hang out at the gate is “my own version of hell,” Gray said.
The Precheck system can be a bit of a black box. Sometimes, if a mixed-status couple books their tickets together, both will get the Precheck stamp on their boarding pass. Sometimes, only the Precheck participant will get it. When I asked TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein how that decision gets made, she wouldn’t offer much detail but said that it has nothing to do with the status of the person who purchased the ticket. “The best way to ensure a Precheck designation on one’s boarding pass is to enroll in the program or to enroll in CBP’s Global Entry program,” Farbstein said.
One of the few people who told me they don’t split up with their partner is Andrew Kwok, 27, of San Francisco. “Every time we go through security at an airport, I default to taking the regular line with him, but I passive aggressively joke about the sacrifices I make for him,” Kwok said. “If I made it to a flight and he didn’t, I still wouldn’t take it, so I feel like flying with him nullifies my Precheck.” Once, the TSA agent who checked his boarding pass asked Kwok why he was in the general-population line. Kwok indicated his boyfriend; the agent told the boyfriend Kwok was “generous” for waiting with him. Kwok’s boyfriend had been meaning to get Precheck, but he dragged his feet on applying, and once he did, there was a long wait for a time slot for the interview. “He doesn’t have the logistics part of his life as together as I do, which is probably the main tension in our relationship,” Kwok said.
Elisa Wiseman, 25, is in a similar position. She told me that her partner usually gets the Precheck designation when they’re traveling domestically, but her Global Entry status doesn’t transfer to him when they travel abroad. “I’d rather just wait with him than sit by myself and wait for him from the other side of customs,” she said. “So it feels kind of like there’s no point in me having had paid for and gone through the process to get Global Entry, because I have literally never taken advantage of having it, since I’ve been with him for every international trip I’ve taken since getting it.” Wiseman’s partner told her he’d pay to get Precheck if she filled out his online application and set up his interview—“he’s just lazy about the logistics involved”— but she won’t, because “it was annoying enough the first time, and I’m not his mom.”
I’m not entirely unbiased on this topic. I only enrolled in Precheck a couple of months ago; for the majority of our seven years together, my wife had it, and I did not. She tells me that I’ve occasionally made “puppy-dog eyes and pouty faces” when she’s left me with the hoi polloi at the security checkpoint. I have no comment on those specific allegations, but I’ll say that most of the time, when we’ve flown together and I haven’t gotten the Precheck stamp, we both agree that she should go through the fast lane. She travels a lot for work and is used to packing a certain way—it would be a hassle for her to find a baggie and prepare her toiletries and electronics in a different configuration. She’d buy us snacks or refill our water bottles while she waited for me to get through security, and she’d let me pack my liquids in her carry-on so I didn’t have to worry about bringing too many lotions or fishing them out of my suitcase.
Even so, at the beginning of our relationship, every flight felt like a tiny reminder of our income disparity. In addition to the Precheck thing, I was younger and working in a much less lucrative field than she was. Some years, she’d have status on United and we’d get an upgrade to Economy Plus, the extra legroom sumptuously wasted on our short frames. I was always the grateful tagalong, never the proud provider. Going on vacation didn’t just mean splitting up at airport security. It meant either staying in cheap accommodations that fit my budget, or a nicer place that she’d have to subsidize—something she’d do happily when she was feeling flush, but which would leave me feeling slightly guilty.
Looking back, I’m sure I could have afforded Precheck. My wife and I would joke that she was some kind of Daddy Warbucks getting her white-glove treatment in the Precheck metal detector, but at $85 for five years, the program is hardly a luxury. Still, I didn’t get around to applying for years, and eventually, as part of the relentless stratification and forced status anxiety of air travel, it came to seem like a luxury: The sophisticated globe-trotters with disposable income line up over here, the poors and the hicks over there. I didn’t mind being part of the latter group until I started traveling with someone whose boarding pass placed her with the former. Kimball-Stanley told me his wife’s Precheck status and his lack thereof have led to “an overall sense that she’s, like, this skilled air traveler, George Clooney in Up in the Air, and I’m, like, this guy who’s never seen a plane before.” You’ve got to hand it to a government-run surveillance program that can seem, in a certain light, like a marker of social cachet.
Real or imagined, Precheck status does create a social division. It’s easy to laugh at the absurdity of the stratification of the airport—the tiers named for precious metals, the endless levels of boarding priority—but those divisions can nudge couples into real-life disputes. Danny, a 32-year-old lawyer with Precheck, found that out after he spent a couple of years flying to meet an international client two or three times a month, leaving him with particular habits and opinions about appropriate airport conduct. His girlfriend, meanwhile, is devoutly anti-Precheck. She’s also “not super organized while traveling and kind of disheveled—going through the security line with her bags half open, items falling out and getting lost. It’s very anxiety-provoking for me,” Danny said.
Usually, their different travel habits are the subject of lighthearted poking-fun, not actual conflict. But during one trip, Danny, who had top-tier status with the airline he used for his work travel, got an upgrade to business class. His girlfriend had to stay in coach. When the seat belt light turned off, she walked up the aisle to chat with him. “In my mind, I don’t think that’s good etiquette,” Danny said. “I was like, ‘Look, I’ve flown a lot of flights, and that’s just not what you do, coming up between the classes. This is not socializing time.’ She got very offended. She was pretty pissed about that one, actually.”
I heard similar versions of Danny’s story from several other people, who said differences in airline status created more drama in their relationships than Precheck did. One woman told me her high-status ex would often get bumped up to first class without her; he once booked his ticket separately from hers to ensure he’d get his upgrade, which she said “really highlighted an overall pattern in our relationship that I was less important than he was.”
Airline status levels are nothing more than corporate gimmicks, customer loyalty programs designed to keep passengers from taking their business to whichever airline has the cheapest tickets. It may seem bizarre, and a little sad, that these frequent-buyer punch cards could have such power. (When Nicole Cliffe got a Dear Prudence letter from a woman who was upset that her husband kept taking airline upgrades without her, Cliffe congratulated her on her “complete nonproblem.”) But in the broader, dehumanizing context of air travel—with its body scans, Snowpiercer-like class segregation, and occasional acts of violence to remove passengers from oversold flights—it’s easy to see how a difference in status could surface existing points of tension in a relationship, especially if one person consistently gets better treatment than the other on trips they’re taking as a pair.
A Precheck divide, though, is much easier to resolve than deep-seated relationship tensions. Grace Van Cleave, 37, of Des Moines, Iowa, said before her boyfriend of a decade got Precheck, their trips together would start on a sour note. She’d sail through security, get them coffee, then return to the security area to wait for him. “I would nag, ‘You really need to get Precheck,’ and he would be like, ‘Yeah, I know,’ ” she said. “He thought he didn’t travel enough to justify the cost, but it was becoming ridiculous. I think it was also a mental block, like it would be a big hassle.”
Van Cleave’s entreaties took on new urgency after one of their visits to the Des Moines airport, where the standard security line was unusually busy. Van Cleave arrived at their gate just before the doors closed, while her boyfriend was still held up at the checkpoint. They missed their flight and had to pay a fee to rebook.
That aggravating snafu wasn’t what finally convinced Van Cleave’s boyfriend to enroll in Precheck, though. “It was a work trip with two colleagues that made him do it,” she said. “He didn’t want to hold them up.”