Transportation and Safety Administration — the dreaded TSA. Business travelers and retirees working through their bucket lists have been through it multiple times. Can you take steps to expedite the process?
Here’s the ideal result. I’m in the TSA Precheck program. I’ve walked up to the counter, shown my ID, put my bag on the belt, walked through the scanner and picked up my bag, all without breaking stride. It was at about 4:30 a.m. at JFK before boarding a 6 a.m. flight to Los Angeles. That’s the best-case outcome.
What’s The Drill?
Before you board an airplane, your ticket is checked three times. You check in online or at the ticket counter when traveling internationally. Your ticket is checked against your photo ID before entering security and it is checked electronically when boarding.
This article addresses the center portion, the gateway between the ticketing area and the restricted access area with the airport lounges, shops and gate agents.
How TSA Security Works
There are parts of airport security you don’t see. There is psychological training you can’t outsmart.
As you approach security, you go through one of three channels: TSA Precheck is the federal program for frequent or known travelers. It’s slightly relaxed. You can keep your shoes, wear a light jacket and leave your tablet or laptop inside your carryon. The scanner is a metal detector.
Standard security is the general line. You must remove any items that include metal, including shoes, belt, cellphone and keys. Your computer goes into a separate bin. Toiletries, packed in a clear plastic bag, with no liquids over 100 ml (3-4 ounces), must be visible. The scanner used is often the full body version. You stand in a clear plastic cylinder with a doorway on each side. Pockets empty, hands overhead. Sometimes they pat you down afterward.
Priority security is the same as standard security, except you stand in a shorter line. Your airline’s frequent flier status or a premium class ticket gets you in that line.
Some airports have tried three lines for general passengers: frequent, occasional and family travelers. You can expect people to ignore those designations and get in whatever line is the shortest.
The TSA screener checks your ticket against your photo ID. The screener makes a handwritten notation on your ticket, confirming inspection.
1: If you travel frequently, apply for TSA Precheck status. It speeds up the process. If you travel internationally, get Global Entry. It speeds up your return.
2: Remove your hat and sunglasses before approaching the podium.
3: Have your photo ID in hand, along with your ticket. Don’t get to the front of the line and be surprised when they ask for it.
4: Put items such as your watch, wallet, keys and cellphone into your carryon. Ditto with large metallic jewelry.
5: Wear slip-on shoes, not shoes with laces.
You approach the conveyor belt leading to the scanner. Expect to use at least two bins, one for your laptop or tablet and another for your jacket, hat, etc. Your carryon goes directly onto the belt.
6: You may be concerned your wallet is in an open bin. That’s why you put it into your carryon. If you didn’t put your wallet in your carryon, stop worrying. There are cameras everywhere.
7: You and the belt rarely move at the same speed. That’s not the TSA staff’s concern. They need to check every bag thoroughly. Getting upset only draws attention to yourself.
Your bag might be flagged for additional screening. You might be flagged. Years ago, you could tell if you were selected because most passengers had the flight destination code printed in black on a white background. Some were reversed, with white lettering on a black background. A continuous line of “SSSS’s” was another clue. It’s usually random. Even TSA Precheck passengers might get selected for additional screening.
8: If your bag is selected and shunted over to the side, stand by the belt quietly. Bags are inspected in order. Don’t attempt to touch your bag or be helpful, offering to unpack it.
9: The TSA folks will swipe an item or two, inserting the fabric swatch into a machine that tests for explosive residue. If you have been near fireworks or fertilizer, let them know. These can cause a positive test result.
10: You brought gifts for friends. If your box of chocolates is wrapped in metallic paper, it will set off the equipment. Tell the TSA agent at the front end of the conveyor belt. Show them the box. We’ve skipped this step and watched them unwrap the package to confirm there really were chocolates inside.
11: TSA screeners can be slow. Smile at them and say, “Thank you for keeping us safe.”
12: The scanning process can vary. On one trip, your bag goes through unopened. On another trip, they check every bottle and bag. The TSA is always training new people on the job. Be polite.
After Clearing Security
There’s usually a pileup at the end of the conveyer belt. People haven’t cleared security yet or they dress right in front of the belt, causing a bottleneck.
13: Carry your shoes and clothing to the benches just beyond the conveyer belts.
What About Food And Drink?
You can bring food and beverages onboard. Getting food and beverages through security is a different story. You run into at least two problems: liquids and plastic utensils.
14: You won’t get a bottle of water or can of soda through security if it’s more than 100 ml (more than 3 ounces). Buy those beverages on the other side of security. Airlines also serve beverages inflight.
15: Your carefully designed carry-on lunch includes soup or cocktail sauce for shrimp. Unless these are under 100 ml, you can’t take them through security.
16: You need plastic cutlery for your meal, but the TSA agent holds up your serrated plastic knife and summons other agents. Get utensils from a fast food counter beyond security or from your airline club. Offer to pay. They will probably give them to you free.
17: Do not attempt to bring rectangular blocks of cheese through airport security. The scanner operator will think this looks remarkably like plastic explosives. It’s happened to me. Tell people what you have ahead of time.
18: Food aboard the plane is less of a problem on departure, compared to arrival. Many countries restrict foodstuffs entering the country. In general, you should be safe with sealed, packaged food bought at a supermarket. Most countries prohibit people from bringing fresh fruit through their borders.
19: The TSA can choose to inspect your checked luggage. On a recent trip to Asia, I unpacked at the hotel and found the pouches containing bottles of wine resealed with TSA tape along with a printed note.
20: Arrive at least two to three hours early, especially for international flights. This is very important if you plan to check luggage. You must wait in line, then clear security. Time flies.
Enhanced airport security is a fact of life. It takes time. It’s out of your hands. Follow these simple tips to make getting through security as painless as possible.
TSA Precheck And Global Entry
Applying for TSA Precheck is easy. There's an $85 fee for this five-year program and it takes five minutes to submit an online application at tsa.gov/precheck.
You also need to schedule an appointment at one of more than 350 enrollment centers. During the 10-minute, in-person appointment, officials will conduct a background check and fingerprinting.
Global Entry (Trusted Traveler Program) is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States. Members enter the U.S. through automatic kiosks at select airports.
At airports, program members proceed to Global Entry kiosks, present their machine-readable passport or U.S. permanent resident card, place their fingerprints on the scanner for fingerprint verification and complete a customs declaration. The kiosk issues the traveler a transaction receipt and directs the traveler to baggage claim and the exit.
Applying for Global Entry involves a longer interview. Like a doctor's appointment, you schedule it and show up. This program has a $100 fee. Click on the link on their website, ttp.cbp.dhs.gov, to learn more and get started.