My SSSSpecial Day With the TSA at Newark Airport
If you've ever been "randomly selected" for enhanced screening at a US airport, the thought of seeing "SSSS" appear at the top of a boarding pass likely sends shivers down your spine. For TPG in 2015, Secondary Security Screening Selection (SSSS) became a months-long ordeal — for me, it simply caused some inconvenience over the weekend, assuming those four letters aren't here to stay.
It all started when I booked a round-trip ticket from Newark to London, with just four hours on the ground before my return. That alone probably wouldn't have spooked the system, but since I was chasing United's retrofitted 767-300ER and I wasn't sure which route it would end up flying, I had no choice but to book my ticket less than 24 hours before departure.
I had a suspicion that I was in for a SSSSpecial treat when I wasn't presented with a smartphone boarding pass after checking in — the only option was to send the boarding pass via email. When I opened the PDF, I realized I still hadn't been issued a boarding pass, just instructions to visit an agent or kiosk once I arrived at Newark Airport.
I went to a kiosk, which spit out the boarding passes for both of my flights, Newark to London and my return the next morning. At the top of both was the dreaded SSSS.
The usual TSA PreCheck logo was missing as well, so I was directed to the regular Premier Access line, where the economy passengers to my right were able to make their way through the queue more quickly — the TSA had one screening lane open for premium-cabin travelers and elites, and two assigned to coach flyers. Fun.
When it came time to hand over my boarding pass and ID, the agent highlighted the SSSS at the top of my boarding pass, shouted that he had a "Quad" — someone with an SSSS on their boarding pass, apparently — and yelled for a supervisor to come over. He then told me to wait next to the podium and proceeded to ignore me as he continued processing other passengers.
Five minutes later I asked him how long I'd have to wait, and he said "it could be a while." Another five minutes passed, so I asked him to make another supervisor request. He begrudgingly did so, and some five minutes after that I was escorted — by two TSA supervisors — to another checkpoint lane.
Once I was past the threshold, a supervisor entered a code into a wall panel, and, much to my surprise, a metal grate dropped down behind me, sealing me into the lane. I nervously asked if I could take pictures — the supervisor said that was fine as long as I didn't photograph the X-ray equipment.
Then the fun began. The friendliest, most patient TSA agent I've ever encountered explained the "enhanced" screening process to me, which at this stage involved removing all of my electronics and placing them into those germ-infested plastic bins.
Next up came roughly five minutes of swabbing. After verifying that all of my electronics powered on, a fourth agent took the explosives swab and wiped almost everything, from my laptop to my bag to my clothing. She would swab one or two items, insert the pad in the machine and repeat the process — for what seemed like a dozen times.
At the same time, the friendly male TSA agent who assisted me with the luggage screening then asked if I preferred that he conduct an enhanced pat-down out in the open or in a private screening room. I decided to get the full experience, so I opted for the private room.
I was brought into a room that looked like — and clearly functioned as — a storage closet. Inside I found metal-detecting wands, boxes of gloves, miscellaneous bags and cases, loads of extra screening bins and a ladder.
The agent brought my bins into the room and set them on a table, then explained the pat-down procedure — it essentially involved him sliding his hands across every part of my (clothed) body, from the shoulders down. He used the back of his hands in a "checkered pattern" when passing over the groin area. He was very professional — it wasn't as uncomfortable as I thought it would be.
Honestly, what surprised me most about this whole process was the condition of the private screening room. I understand that space can be tight in the airport, but I think it's reasonable to keep at least one private screening room entirely clear at each checkpoint. After the screening was complete I was left alone to gather my belongings, and I could have easily dropped a souvenir or two into my bag, had I wanted to.
As for the departure from London, I was actually expecting an even more thorough inspection there. I received normal screening at the regular checkpoint, then had a quick secondary screening (along with other passengers) at the gate. While my TSA adventure took about 30 minutes, including wait time, the SSSS added just a couple minutes of extra screening at Heathrow Airport.
For more on this one-day London adventure, see:
- Flight Review: United (767-300ER) Polaris Business Class From Newark to London
- Touring United’s First 767 With the New Polaris Business Seats
- United’s 767 With the New Polaris Business Seats Launches From Newark Friday
Have you received SSSSpecial screening in the US?