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10 Tips for Coping with Extra Security Screening at Airports

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If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’re by now aware that, following a trip to Istanbul for vacation, The Points Guy himself has been marked with a most insidious SSSScarlet letter. SSSS stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection, and he’s since had so many TSA pat-downs that he’s actually started to rank them — and TPG readers have chimed in with SSSS stories of their own.

Since this security status seems to be especially prevalent lately, we went to “Patrick Down,” our TSA Insider, to weigh in on what to do when your boarding pass is repeatedly labeled with the dreaded SSSS.

Image courtesy of <a href="">Shutterstock</a>.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Patrick began by explaining that the SSSS selectee system has “four different levels ranging from a known terrorist/supporter who has been granted an exception to fly, to people who have simply set off certain red flags due to recent activity, as in The Points Guy’s case. However, TSA officers at the checkpoint are only told that a passenger is a selectee, not which level of selectee the passenger is.”

He then offered 10 tips for mitigating the more annoying aspects of this extra security screening:

Get through security lines faster with TSA PreCheck. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
If there was ever a time to head to a priority screening line, seeing that “SSSS” is it. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

1. Use a priority line. Things will go more smoothly if you’re proactive about your screening. Go right to the priority line, and declare to the document checker that you’re a selectee. It makes their jobs easier, and will go a long way toward having a more pleasant “deep tissue massage,” as TPG puts it.

2. Don’t “travel” with others. If you’re traveling with a group, or even just one other person, allow them to complete screening before you even begin the process, or else they might be given extra screening, as well.

3. Don’t “travel” with children. All children who appear under 12 receive a pat-down when traveling with a selectee. If possible, have children go through with another parent/guardian before you start your own screening.

4. Make sure all electronics are charged. The TSA will ask you to power on all electronics the size of a phone or larger to make sure they aren’t filled with explosives. If electronics won’t power on, you could be forced to leave the checkpoint and either check your electronics with the airline or charge them up — and then you’ll have to start the screening process all over.

If there was ever a good time to check your luggage, this is that time. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Check as much of your luggage as possible before heading for security. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

5. The fewer carry-ons you have, the better. If you know (or even think) that you’ll be selected for enhanced screening, check as much luggage as you can and arrive at the checkpoint with as few of your belongings as possible — this will help speed up your screening time exponentially. Someone with a book, a boarding pass and a passport is going to be finished much sooner than someone with a rolling suitcase, a garment bag, toiletries and gifts for the kids.

6. Don’t try to sneak through. This is not the time to play your odds or take advantage of overworked staff. If the document checker doesn’t notice that you have an SSSS boarding pass, tell them! The TSA has a list of selectees that are supposed to come through their checkpoints, and if you slide by, someone will come and get you at the gate. And if you manage to get on your plane without being screened, the TSA will often have the flight diverted and force everyone on the plane to be screened. You don’t want to be that person.

7. Show up 15-30 minutes earlier than usual. To account for extra screening and/or having to print a boarding pass with an airline agent, arrive at the airport as early as you can. Extra screening is not as much of a pain as re-booking your flight — and going through screening a second time — just because you didn’t show up early enough.

8. Wear form-fitting clothes. Many people prefer layers when flying to account for chilly cabins or temperature differences at their destination. And it’s normal to want to be comfortable on the flight, especially if it’s long enough to catch a snooze. But the fewer pockets and layers you have on your person, the easier it is be patted down.

Millimeter wave body scans work extremely well. Photo by Michael Sauers / Flickr.
Just because you’ve been flagged with SSSS doesn’t mean you have to submit to a body scan. Photo by Michael Sauers / Flickr.

9. Know your rights regarding the body scanner. If you’re a selectee, the TSA will try to have you go through the body scanner. But you can still opt out, and will receive no extra screening as a result.

10. Request to repack your own luggage. Patrick Down saw in the comments section of a previous post that the TSA “decided to rip my Tumi carry-on apart.” Regardless of selectee status, the TSA should never damage a passenger’s property. If a TSA employee ever damages property while screening, ask for a supervisor immediately; the TSA is required to pay for damages.

If you’ve also been afflicted with SSSS, do you have any coping tips of your own to offer? Please share them in the comments below. 

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