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CBS2 Investigates: Potential Risk At Airport Security Checks?

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- You expect that the person sitting next to you on a flight has been thoroughly screened like you have.

But that may not always be the case.

In a CBS2 exclusive investigation, Carolyn Gusoff found that the Transportation Security Administration knows all about this potential security threat.

"I didn't have the screening that the others did, and walked right in," traveler Eileen Gorkin said.

It's hard to believe, in post-9/11 New York, that travelers could get on an airplane without the security rituals that many have come to trust, Gusoff reported.

But CBS2 has learned that it happens regularly in all three of the major Tri-State Area airports.

Passengers without background checks have been whisked through the same lines reserved for pre-screened travelers -- members of the TSA's pre-check programs.

Nearly 700,000 passengers have signed up for the pre-check program. They've all undergone background checks, been fingerprinted, and paid $85 for the privilege of going through the hassle free fast lane at airport security. Jackets, belts, and shoes stay on, and laptops and liquids stay packed.

"I didn't have to take my shoes off. I didn't have to take my laptop out," one man said.

But those pre-check lines have been observed to be flooded with passengers who weren't pre-checked.

TSA officers have been seen merging lines into one.

"Almost every time I've been through pre-check at JFK the lines have merged, I've actually asked what's going on and they say it's for expediency sake," Paula Froelich, Editor-In-Chief, Yahoo Travel said.

Passengers have seen it at LaGuardia Airport, and Newark Liberty International Airport too.

"They just let everybody else into the line," one traveler said.

CBS2 asked TSA agents about what had been observed and several staff members said that they merge lines to keep them moving.

In a statement the TSA said that security is being driven by intelligence.

"The vast majority of airline passengers are low risk," the TSA said in the statement.

They added that eligible passengers are directed to the pre-check lane based on multiple layers of security including behavior detection officers, explosive trace detectors, and sometimes canine teams.

The TSA did not directly address questions about entire lines merging.

"The whole thing about security is supposed to be consistency," said security expert Manuel Gomez.

Gomez, a former FBI agent, said that seeing this in busy airports worries him.

"The TSA, for convenience sake, has chosen to be inconsistent in order to expedite travelers getting through the airport security process," he said.

Gomez too has been ushered through reduced security, and said the practice could give the wrong people bad ideas.

"Then terrorists could simply keep probing our security and say, 'OK, statistically speaking, I will eventually get on the pre-check line, and I could then board with whatever explosive that I choose," he explained.

The TSA said its officers make real-time threat assessments. But others say it's high a high stakes call to make on the fly.

The TSA cut its budget by $100 million this year. The agency told Congress the cut in part was because of its new and more efficient airport security.

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