The dreaded SSSS boarding pass: What you need to know about TSA’s enhanced screening tag
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SSSS: It’s the four-letter acronym printed on a boarding pass that gives any airline passenger a pit in their stomach. Secondary Security Screening Selection — or “The Quad S,” as some call it — means you have been selected for additional enhanced security screening by the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. But just what does this designation mean, how burdensome is it, and how can you best prepare for this additional step in the airport security and boarding process? And if you are repeatedly selected for additional screening, what can you do to try to decrease your odds of being selected?
TPG spoke with a TSA representative and frequent travelers to get their advice on how to deal with the SSSS enhanced screening process.
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What is SSSS?
SSSS stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection. It’s a tag printed on your boarding pass to indicate that you have been selected to receive additional enhanced screening of your body and your personal items like carry-on baggage at the airport — either at the initial TSA screening area or the boarding gate.
TSA press secretary Carter Langston described SSSS to TPG as “an intelligence-oriented, risk-based screening process that is just one part of multiple layers of airport security.”
Related: My SSSSpecial Day with TSA at Newark
What to expect if you find SSSS on your boarding pass?
While the process may vary by airport and security official, a typical SSSS enhanced screening process will involve you being separated from the boarding line or TSA line and directed to an adjacent review table with a member of the TSA staff.
Your carry-on bag with be thoroughly examined — and we do mean “thoroughly,” as every item contained within will likely be handled, removed, inspected, poked and prodded, along with the lining of the bag and exterior pockets. The TSA will ask that electronic devices on your person or in your bag be turned on and presented for inspection.
The enhanced screening also typically involves a full-body pat-down, an additional metal-detecting wand wave and explosive-detecting swabs rubbed on your baggage and at least your hands. (Some travelers have reported getting their feet swabbed as well!) The TSA agent will probably ask you questions about if you packed your bag yourself and others regarding your itinerary, reason for travel and destination information. Your screening may be more or less invasive and potentially involve additional steps. You’ll be given the option to have this process performed in a private screening room.
There’s no specific amount of time allotted for an SSSS enhanced screening. I’ve had my supplemental screening completed in less than five minutes, while other travelers have reported delays of 30 minutes, largely due to busy screening personnel or a greater number of passengers waiting to be screened than usual.
You should expect to be treated professionally and courteously during this process (assuming you follow directions). You can request a TSA supervisor to come to handle any questions or complaints you may encounter during the screening, but expect this to add time to the process.
Why might you get assigned the SSSS tag?
The TSA is deliberately vague on the SSSS selection process, which is part of its collection of intentionally “unpredictable security measures” at and around airports and during the travel booking process, as described on the TSA website.
Langston simply says that “there are so many reasons you might get the SSSS designation” and would neither confirm nor deny any further details of the selection process. The details are left vague primarily to prevent potentially dangerous individuals from modifying their behavior to evade screening.
The DHS website summarizes that “many factors are considered to determine whether to select someone for secondary screening, but for security reasons they cannot be disclosed.”
While no official explanation of the SSSS selection process is available, TPG has gathered anecdotal information from our staff, readers and public news stories to determine some items that might flag you for additional screening, either one time or with aggravating frequency.
- Targeted “suspicious” activities like booking one-way tickets, purchasing tickets using cash, taking unusual itineraries or traveling to a flagged destination.
- Travel to and from Turkey seems to have have been a trigger item for repeated SSSS screenings in recent years, according to multiple TPG readers and staff members.
- Subjective decisions by TSA staff on-site who see “suspicious” behavior.
- Purely random selection; there may be a quota of 10% or so of passengers.
Being a member of Trusted Traveler Programs like TSA PreCheck and/or Global Entry is no shield against supplemental screening. The TSA can tag you with the SSSS code once or with regularity. Even a high-profile, frequent traveler like The Points Guy founder Brian Kelly can get repeatedly tagged. He dealt with months of additional screening after a single work trip to Turkey. Age doesn’t seem to be a factor, as both minors and seniors regularly get selected.
The inscrutable nature of secondary screening does lend itself to potential abuse. I once had my ticket reissued with a SSSS designation moments before boarding when a petty gate agent with Aeromexico didn’t like the way I stood in the boarding area (since I was absentmindedly standing slightly between Zone 1 and Zone 2, he told me to go to the end of the line, and when I didn’t, he grabbed my ticket and added the SSSS tag). I was still able to board the flight in plenty of time and had room for my carry-on bag in the overhead compartment, so this was only a minor inconvenience when compared to those whose extended screenings cause missed flights. Still, the experience suggests there could be some improvements made to the process.
How can you best prepare for additional security screening?
While inconvenient and annoying, additional enhanced screening typically won’t cause you to miss your flight unless you’re really running late, so budget a little extra time into your schedule just in case there’s a last-minute screening. If you see the SSSS tag early in the process, allot more time to account for any significant screening delays.
Keep these tips in mind if you’re chosen for additional screening:
- Pack your bag so it is easily inspectable. This will make the inspection process go faster, as well as lessen the odds of facing any potential embarrassment from packed items like your underwear flying all over the terminal when the TSA agent opens your overstuffed carry-on. Packing cubes can be your friend here, thereby compartmentalizing your bag for easier searches.
- Be courteous and polite to the inspectors. If you annoy them, they may decide to take their sweet time eviscerating your carry-on and everything inside it (not to mention continuing with an invasive body search). On my inbound travels, I’ve had a nice pair of dress shoes destroyed after a customs inspector took issue with my side comments about union workers. On the flip side, another inspector let me into the U.S. carrying an extra 2 gallons of rum after we shared a few drinking jokes. So being friendly can help … sometimes.
- Some TPG readers have suggested that if you are tagged with SSSS, you should hand off your electronics and other potential time-consuming inspection items to travel companions.
- If you do feel an inspector is acting inappropriately, particularly with regards to a “person’s race, color, sex, gender identity, national origin, religion or disability,” politely but firmly request a supervisor. This will take extra time, but you are within your rights to do so.
- If you have a disability or medical condition that you think would impact the screening process, you can contact TSA Cares ahead of time for advice, recommendations and potential assistance at the airport.
What to do if you keep getting the SSSS tag?
Many travelers (myself included) have been subjected to regular and repeated random screenings or SSSS tags over a period of months or even years.
TPG reader Kay Thomas shares that she was tagged with “SSSS routinely for five years. Mind you, I am a white-haired lady over seventy and travel for pleasure.”
The news is filled with reports of U.S. citizens being repeatedly and incorrectly tagged for additional screenings, put on watch lists and even subjected to wrongful detentions. The DHS is notoriously uncooperative in getting any of these issues resolved, to the point of people having to get high-level congressional help for resolution.
There are some steps you can take, though, to try to get yourself removed from the TSA’s “Selectee List” for regular SSSS screening (although there’s no way to check to see if you are actually on such a list). If “you are continuously referred for additional screening at the airport,” you can apply for a DHS TRIP, according to the DHS website. This isn’t a vacation sort of trip, but rather the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, a journey you can embark on to try to get your name removed from the target list. You enter the TRIP portal, where you must first create an account, then add profile information with proof of identification and a summary of your travel experiences. Should DHS approve your request for removal from the screening list, you will be given a redress control number that you can enter on airline websites as part of the check-in process or provide at an airport to TSA personnel.
Some TPG readers have reported success using the redress control number application process to stop their regular SSSS hassles. Charlotte Hayes says the process was “super easy and just took a few days. No reason was ever given [for being put on a security list, but the targeted screening has since stopped.]”
More typically, the TRIP process involves a sizable amount of data entry, and you’ll have to wait months to get a result or even a response.
“It worked for me,” flyer Alfie Cleveland says about the Traveler Redress process. “It did take a few months, though they never told me why [the regular SSSS targeting happened].”
Another flyer, Kay Thomas, says “it was a pain to do the paperwork, but since then it has been smooth sailing through lines for me.”
And reader Chelsea Roy notes that despite applying to be removed through the Traveler Redress program in October 2018, she didn’t receive a response until March 2019. Eventually, the screenings stopped for her.
My personal experience of getting tagged for repeated SSSS screenings began after a series of quickly planned one-way travels, and the screenings continued for about a year until they suddenly stopped without apparent cause or explanation.
For most people, getting an SSSS tag on your ticket means you have one more slightly inconvenient thing to factor in to your airport check-in process. There’s really not a whole lot you can do to avoid the tag, as the TSA selection process is confidential.
If you get tagged repeatedly for screening, the DHS’ Traveler Redress Inquiry Program offers a potential resolution process.
Regardless of your circumstances, TPG recommends you allow a little extra time and pack your patience when transiting through airports. Be sure to pack your bag smartly in case you are unexpectedly chosen for additional SSSS screening.
Featured image by Matthew Hatcher/Bloomberg via Getty Images.
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