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Last weekend, I flew round-trip from Newark to London Heathrow to review United’s retrofitted 767-300ER, which just entered service with the new Polaris business class. As a result of the last-minute international booking, I received the dreaded SSSS at the top of my boarding pass, designating me for Secondary Security Screening Selection. For more on my experience, see My SSSSpecial Day With the TSA at Newark Airport.
At the end of that post, I suggested that readers share their own experiences. I picked out some highlights from the dozens of notable responses — if there’s one common theme, it’s that there’s little consistency when it comes to the reason travelers are targeted for SSSS and how the TSA (or foreign security officers) handle the screening process. Perhaps that’s by design.
So, without further ado, here are 5 experiences that stood out to me.
1. An Inconvenient Opt-Out
Last week I didn’t notice that my ticket was missing my TSA PreCheck. I was guided to the regular inspection line while distracted. When I was asked to enter the full body scanner I realized what had happened and said that I wished to opt out. At that point I was given the same treatment as a “quad.” After asking one of the agents several times about my unguarded credit cards and cash that had just gone through the scanner, I was told “It’s your choice to opt out,” which implied that he viewed it as my fault if someone took items from my security tray instead of… oh, I don’t know… asking another member of the security team to move my items. I replied that I don’t see why my items should be put at risk, and asked if he considered this to be a form of punishment for not wishing to go through the scanner. After a few beats I sat down cross-legged on the floor and he called for someone to move my items away from public access, probably seeing that I wasn’t going to give in to a scan. After a pat-down (I opted for public view) they then unpacked my backpack, going over every single item. The ladies tasked with this warmed up to me as I made little jokes and engaged in conversation. They actually asked at one point why I wasn’t upset like so many other travelers they’ve dealt with. I didn’t have the heart to explain schadenfreude and that I was enjoying my being more of an inconvenience to them than they were to me. – George
2. A Passport Mismatch
Had my sister check me in one time. She messed up my friends passport number that I was flying with. He got the SSSS, but it was pretty easy for him. – Dave
3. A Delayed International Flight
I got SSSS on our flight from Barcelona to Newark to Houston. The process took two hours — I was never told what the SSSS meant, I was separated from my husband, no one even attempted to speak English to me and the flight was delayed 30 minutes because they waited for me to get back from SSSS screening. I was the LAST person on the plane, so got all kinds of friendly looks from fellow passengers. Thankfully, we were upgraded to first class at check in, so as soon as I sat in my seat I was given two vodka OJs that my husband had (wisely) ordered on my behalf. I was PISSED. – Brittney
4. Tokyo’s the Place to Be
SSSS in Tokyo is easy too. They apologize profusely throughout the 30-second extra screening which takes place off to the side of the jet bridge, just after you scan your boarding pass. – Conflict
5. A Flight Booked Far in Advance
I got SSSS on my boarding pass from Indianapolis to Phoenix. TSA agents asked me if I’ve traveled out of North America within the past year. I said I haven’t been out of the country for 20+ years. Really had no idea why I was even selected. I had no status with the airlines nor TSA PreCheck. It was a weird experience. But I went through everything Zach went through as well. And I bought my round-trip ticket six months in advance. – Kevin
Based on reader feedback, it seems that the SSSS designation is much more common on international departures to the US, and that’s been my experience as well. I’ve received SSSS a couple times in Paris and once in Zurich — each time I was pulled aside for a quick secondary screening at the gate.
Where the inconvenience factor really jumps into overdrive is when Secondary Security Screening Selection is assigned on a departure from the US, which is when the TSA gets involved. If I had arrived at the airport 30 minutes before departure, as I sometimes do, I definitely would have missed my flight. However it seems that SSSS appears far more frequently on fights from Europe to the US than it does on the reverse leg.
Have you received SSSScreening from the TSA?
Know before you go.
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