For many air travelers, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening is the most dreaded part of the journey.
It’s not the full-body scanners or the threat of a pat-down. It’s the risk of a COVID-19 infection at the hands of a TSA employee. Thousands of TSA workers have contracted the virus and several have died, according to the agency.
What you need to know about the TSA now
Now more than ever, the TSA is a source of anxiety for air travelers. To calm fears, the agency has made several changes to the way it screens passengers. They include:
Installing acrylic barriers at various points throughout the screening area.
Adding new authentication technology that allows travelers to insert their own IDs for verification at the travel document checker.
New computed tomography scanners that replace existing X-ray technology. The new CT scanners provide an image of carry-on bag contents that can be rotated in three dimensions, reducing the need for TSA screening officers to open up bags. However, they are reportedly very slow.
You can find out more about the TSA’s safety efforts on its site.
Before you leave
• What is the TSA?
• Where will you find the TSA?
• Do you have to comply with the TSA?
• Should you try to avoid the TSA?
• How do you get around the TSA?
• How can I get “expedited” screening?
• What is PreCheck? How do I get it?
• How does the process work?
• What happens during the interview?
• How does TSA know that you are a part of this program?
• What’s a chat down?
• Is there a “good” and a “bad” time to be flying, in terms of getting through the TSA screening area faster?
• Is the TSA Mobile app worth downloading?
• How do I prepare for screening?
At the airport
• Do I have to obey every uniformed person I encounter at a TSA screening area?
• Can I get randomly selected for a secondary screening?
• Is it true that American passengers love to bring guns and other dangerous weapons on the plane? Isn’t that why we have the TSA?
• Do TSA agents have access to extensive information about me at their fingertips?
• If I have a disagreement or argument with a TSA agent, will I be added to some kind of no-fly list?
• Do I have to answer a TSA agent’s questions if he or she engages me in a chat down?
• Are Behavior Detection Officers really mind readers, who know if you are harboring subversive thoughts?
• Do my liquids and gels really need to go in a plastic bag on the conveyor belt?
• Should I opt out of the full body scanner?
• Who should always go through the scanner?
• Who should not get scanned?
• How do I say “no” to a scan?
• How do you survive a pat-down with your dignity intact?
• What’s the best attire for a screening?
• What if I have a problem with airport security?
Complaining to the TSA
• How do I complain to the TSA?
• What kinds of grievances should I wait for?
• What do I need to know about the claims process?
• Is there an appeals process?
• Can I shortcut the process on social media?
• What about other complaints?
BEFORE YOU LEAVE
The TSA is a federal agency that protects the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce. After 9/11, the agency screeners replaced core transportation security functions performed by private contractors.
The agency can’t police every highway, airport, or waterway, and it never will. Instead, you’ll find the TSA at major airports and some regional airports with commercial service.
If you’re using a major airport, you’ll have to be screened by the TSA. You can avoid the TSA by flying on charter flights or private aircraft.
You’re far less likely to see them in these places:
✓ On the road. TSA decommissioned its mobile VIPR teams (that’s shorthand for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) in 2019. Before that, the teams conducted spot checks on some roadways and at public events like concerts. Technically, it’s still possible to see the TSA on the road, but it’s highly unlikely.
✓ At sea. If you’re cruising, you probably won’t see any TSA agents. Screenings and passport control are handled by customs agents and cruise personnel.
✓ On the train. Although some TSA teams have been spotted on subways, light rail, and Amtrak, their presence is random and sporadic. Your odds of seeing an A-list celebrity on the train are greater than being searched and questioned by a TSA agent.
Once the screening process has begun, you are required by law to go through the screening. But it’s important to note that TSA screeners, also referred to as Transportation Security Officers, do not have law enforcement authority. In other words, they can’t arrest you. They have to call airport police to do that.
If you’re not at the airport, the rules are different. If you approach a checkpoint, you can make a U-turn or walk away, and there is no legal requirement that you allow your vehicle or your belongings to be searched.
In addition, you can deny airport police permission to search you or your car by saying, “I do not consent to a search.” A law enforcement officer can’t search your car without probable cause — in other words, unless he or she sees something suspicious. So technically, it’s possible to pass through a TSA checkpoint and deny agents the right to search your vehicle. But you are probably better off just leaving or complying.
Probably not. A vast majority of TSA airport searches are incident-free. The agents are polite, efficient, and helpful. But some aren’t. There are disagreements over the safety of the TSA’s body scanners, misunderstandings over prohibited items, and, of course, altercations over pat-downs. I know some travelers who believe the TSA is doing a great job protecting us from terrorism. Others flat-out refuse to fly.
Certain air travelers may want to pay closer attention to the way the TSA operates, since it could affect their trip. Travelers with disabilities, and especially passengers with mobility problems, tend to have a higher-than-average incident rate with the agency and its screenings.
The agency also seems to dislike shutterbugs, even though taking pictures of a TSA screening is generally acceptable. (Note: This isn’t always the case. Local regulations may restrict photography in other places. If you have the urge to shoot photos at a cruise terminal or train station, ask if it’s OK to take photos, particularly when it comes to capturing any images of the screening process.)
If you show up with a video camera on “record,” you may be confronted by a TSA agent, who will ask you to turn off the device. I recommend that you comply.
Also, if you’re skittish about being touched, poked, and prodded by a stranger, then some TSA screening methods might not be for you. The TSA uses what’s called an “enhanced” pat-down to resolve any screening anomalies. A full pat-down is typically used when you refuse to go through a full-body scanner or if a scan sets off an alarm (more on that in a moment). That means an agent will touch your arms, legs, torso and other parts of your body, including possibly your head, with a gloved hand. The TSA says only a small percentage of screenings require a pat-down.
The best way to steer clear of the agency is to plan a trip that avoids a scheduled airline, if possible. If you have to fly, take a chartered flight on a small aircraft. Most business and leisure trips take place by car, so you would be in good company if you simply decided to drive. A cruise is another way to travel TSA-free. But none of these methods is a guarantee; the agency is currently expanding, and if it could, it would probably screen every method of travel, in accordance with its mission statement.
The TSA has carved out a list of passengers that do not need to be screened, or are given access to special screening procedures. They include:
• Working pilots.
• Flight attendants on duty.
• Senior members of Congress.
• Cabinet secretaries.
• Former Presidents.
• Members of the military (traveling in uniform) and their families.
• Police officers on duty.
• On-duty cargo loaders, baggage handlers, fuelers, cabin cleaners, and caterers who work at the airport, have airport IDs issued after undergoing background checks and training and are on duty.
• Airport volunteers who have airport-issued IDs as a result of passing background checks and training.
• Foreign dignitaries.
• Members of TSA’s PreCheck (trusted traveler) program.
If you’re a frequent traveler, you may want to consider joining the PreCheck program in order to avoid some screening procedures. PreCheck is an expedited security screening program that offers a shortcut through the normal security screening process and, according to the TSA, a “better” air travel experience. You don’t remove your electronics and liquids from your carry-on luggage and you aren’t screened with a body scanner. You also don’t have to take off your shoes.
Bear in mind that while the program may expedite your screening, it can’t promise that you’ll avoid a scan or pat-down. The TSA reserves the right to conduct a regular screening or to deny you PreCheck benefits for any reason. And FYI — don’t try to use that PreCheck line unless you actually have the approval to use it.
You can pre-enroll online. Once you’re “conditionally approved,” you can schedule your appointment for an in-person interview. The appointment needs to be scheduled within 30 days of being conditionally approved. If there are no appointments available, you may need to travel to another airport. When you see that your status is conditionally approved, you will be prompted to print a copy of the letter, which you will need to bring with you to your appointment. The letter will include a list of documentation that you will need to bring.
The interview is scheduled to last about 15 minutes, and is usually a quick process. Most interviews last less than 15 minutes. You’ll be asked for your letter and passport or other ID. An agent will verify a few facts about your travel history. You’ll be fingerprinted. You’ll receive an email within a few days confirming your acceptance into the program, but sometimes, you’ll have the confirmation before you leave the airport.
If you’re also applying for Global Entry, you will receive a border crossing card to be presented if you cross the border in a car.
Your PreCheck profile is linked to your passport. Whenever you book your travel plans, you can add your Known Traveler Number to your airline reservation, which gives you access to the PreCheck line. When your boarding pass is printed, you’ll see the PreCheck designation, which allows you to use the PreCheck line.
The TSAs Behavior Detection Officers sometimes conduct brief interviews, called chat downs, with passengers who are being screened. The interview process usually takes less than five minutes and includes basic questions, like where you’re going, the purpose of your trip, and how long you will be gone. You don’t have to answer the questions, but if you refuse, you may face a scan or a pat-down.
With the possible exception of fares, no aspect of air travel is more misunderstood than the TSA checkpoint. Here are a few common myths about TSA screening.
Is there a “good” and a “bad” time to be flying, in terms of getting through the TSA screening area faster?
Not really. TSA scales back its staffing during slow times and ramps up its checkpoints with employees during busy times. Predicting a “better” time to go through security is difficult. You go when you need to fly, and if you’re traveling at a busy time of day, give yourself an extra 15 minutes or so, just to be safe.
It can be. The MyTSA app relies on passengers to report their wait times, and the content is controlled by the TSA. If you need to know how long you’ll take at the screening area, it’s useful to have.
Want to get through the TSA screening process as quickly and painlessly as possible? If you don’t participate in a trusted traveler program, here are a few tried and true ways to make your checkpoint experience a smoother one.
- Pack light. The more you have to screen, the longer it takes. Bring a small carry-on bag if possible.
- Leave the hiking boots at home. Taking your shoes on and off can slow down the process. Wear shoes you can slip out of — and back into — quickly.
- Divest. You’ve been through the metal detector before, so you probably already know what sets it off. Don’t wear anything that might make it beep (if you do, you’ll have to undergo a dreaded secondary screening). Pay attention to belt buckles and jewelry, which tend to make the machine scream. Also, remove your belt and all items from your pockets when going through Advanced Imaging Technology units.
- No jacket required. If you can avoid wearing a jacket, do it. Jackets usually have to be removed, and that’s another step that slows the process down.
- Don’t forget to breathe. The screening area is the most stressful part of the airport. Slow down, take deep breaths, and don’t let them see you sweat. No, seriously. If you look too nervous, you could get a secondary screening.
Card-carrying frequent fliers are members of PreCheck, or have access to the special first-class lines, so they move through the system much faster than us ordinary mortals. Even when their preferred lines aren’t available, they know how to get around the masses.
- Look for the line without the body scanner. Those lines tend to move faster, because the body scanner adds anywhere between 30 seconds to a minute of screening time per passenger. You can choose the line you stand in most of the time, at least in my experience. Check the TSA Status site to find the exact locations of the scanners. It’s a good idea to stay as far away from them as possible, as I’ll explain in a minute.
- Shoes first. You’ll want to remove your shoes first, and put them on the conveyor belt before the rest of your luggage. Why? Because after you pass through the magnetometer, it’s the first thing you’ll be looking for, and the first thing you should do — put your shoes back on. If you reverse the process, it’s less efficient.
- Buy a decent carry-on bag. Get something that’s easy to open, and if you’re traveling with a laptop, make sure it’s in a TSA-approved laptop case (that way, you shouldn’t have to take your laptop out of your bag, which can also cause delays). You’ll also look like you know what you’re doing, which counts for something.
- Double-check your bag before you leave home. Make sure you didn’t pack any knives, firearms, or other prohibited items. They may be discovered by the TSA screeners, which is your best-case scenario. Trust me, the last thing you want is to find the loaded revolver you accidentally packed when you’re already on a plane. That could lead to a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, and a very serious delay.
AT THE AIRPORT
No. Some of the uniformed employees you’ll meet prior to reaching the security checkpoint are contracted out by the airlines for queue management and are not trained or authorized to conduct inspections. None of the TSA workers have actual law enforcement authority, even though they refer to themselves as “officers.”
If they need to make an arrest, they have to call airport police. If a TSA employee gives you instructions that you are uncomfortable with, you can politely refuse. The worst that can happen is that the agent will call the police, and you will get to explain the problem to a third party.
It’s been a while since someone complained to our team about randomly getting the legendary “SSSS” mark on a boarding pass, which instructs agents to give you a secondary screening. See:
But it is still happening. There have been several well-known triggers for getting the ol’ once-over in the past, including paying for your tickets with cash, flying one way, and of course, having a name that matches one on the terrorist watchlist. You can also set off the magnetometer or body scanner.
Is it true that American passengers love to bring guns and other dangerous weapons on the plane? Isn’t that why we have the TSA?
Not exactly. TSA likes to brag about weapons confiscations, but the truth is, virtually all of the “dangerous” weapons it confiscates are brought through the screening area by accident. To date, none of the passengers whose contraband has been intercepted by the TSA has been charged with any crimes relating to terrorism. They just forgot to pack their firearms and knives in their checked baggage.
Hardly. In the past, it’s actually been pretty easy to print a fake boarding pass, and get through a screening area, although I wouldn’t recommend trying it. Agents can’t verify your flight, ping the DMV database for speeding tickets, and pull up your criminal record — there’s just not enough time. The employees screening you don’t know who you are, and they don’t know for certain if you even have a ticket to fly that day. For more information on what the government knows about you, see its Secure Flight page.
It isn’t a crime to disagree with the TSA, or even to be a critic. You’ll only be added to the terrorist watchlist if, as the name suggests, you are a suspected terrorist. The TSA doesn’t keep the watchlist; it’s actually maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center.
No. If the questions are too personal, you can refuse to answer. You will be subjected to a secondary screening, which you can endure in silence.
Are Behavior Detection Officers really mind readers, who know if you are harboring subversive thoughts?
Nope. These specially-trained agents can tell if you’re nervous, at best. Nothing more.
Enforcement of the TSA’s 3-1-1 rule is sometimes erratic. Some agents let anything through; others will reportedly confiscate all of your cosmetics if they are not properly stored in a ziplock bag. Your best bet is to comply with this rule even if you disagree with it.
If you’re unfortunate enough to get into a line with a working scanner, you’ll be asked to walk through it. The process is pretty straightforward: Empty your pockets, remove your belt, step into the machine, hold your hands above your head, and the machine does the rest. You won’t feel anything. If you refuse, you’ll be subjected to a secondary screening, and a pat-down, under the TSA’s current screening procedures. Even if you agree to use the scanner, you may still be subjected to a pat-down if something suspicious — agents refer to it as an “anomaly” — is detected during the scan.
Passengers object to the scanners for two main reasons: First, the scanners can look through your clothes, allowing the machine to see all of you, although new privacy software is said to fix that. Second, they worry about being exposed to harmful radiation from the scanners.
The best decision is to avoid having to make it in the first place. Find a scanner-less line, and you’ll be able to get through the screening area if your luggage passes the X-ray inspection, and you make it through the magnetometer. Bear in mind that the secondary screening would still be a pat-down.
Whether you allow yourself to be scanned or not is entirely your decision. I’ve been covering the TSA since its inception, and have seen screening technology come and go. Most airport scanners today use “millimeter” wave technology, which is thought to be less harmful than the X-ray scanners that were installed at airports in 2010. Still, I can’t personally recommend the current scanners to anyone.
If you have any type of implanted medical device, such as a pacemaker or artificial joints, you might prefer the scanner. People with medical implants tell me that life is much easier if you use the scanner rather than the metal detector. Your implanted device invariably sets off the metal detector, leading to “very unpleasant” pat-downs, according to these travelers.
Here’s my personal advice, based on covering the TSA and watching the technology evolve. I would consider avoiding a scanner under the following circumstances. If:
• You are pregnant or might be pregnant.
• You’re traveling with young kids.
• You’ve already been exposed to a lot of radiation, or are being medically treated with radiation.
All TSA scanners have privacy software that is said to make you look like a stick figure on the scan, but some travelers are dubious of that claim. If you don’t want a machine to see through your clothes, you’ll want to politely decline a scan. The TSA claims its full-body scanners are completely safe and respect your privacy. If you believe the TSA, then feel free to ignore my recommendation.
Politely tell your screener that you would prefer not to go through the scanner. The agent may do one of two things:
- Try to convince you the scanner is 100 percent safe, or tell you that a scan is required.
- Conduct a search of your person, which is called a pat-down, or ask for a screener of the same gender to pat you down.
Some travelers feel the body scanners haven’t been adequately tested, and I am one of them. Also, there is no requirement that you be screened with one of these machines. If a screener insists you use the scanner, calmly say, “I would like to opt out, please.” You generally have the right to refuse the scan, and this puts the agent on notice that you are aware of your rights. (Note: As of December 2015, the TSA may, in rare cases, insist that you use the scanner. If you don’t, you will not be allowed into the boarding area.) Try to be as polite and nonconfrontational as possible if it gets to this stage.
Personally, I believe no one should have to choose between being scanned or patted down, and I’m opposed to this method of screening. While a vast majority of pat-downs are conducted without incident, some are not. These strategies can help you get through this unfortunate procedure:
- Introduce yourself. Say, “Hi, my name is… what’s your name?” No, you’re not asking the screener on a date. You want to get the agent’s name, and you want to establish that you are a person, not a suspect. Important: Take a mental note of the agent’s name. You may need it later.
- Always ask to have the pat-down done in a public place. The opportunity for misunderstanding or mischief is far higher behind closed doors.
- Mention any medical condition you might have, no matter how small. If you’re just getting over a cold, or you have a sore knee, bring it up. Some pat-downs can be forceful to the point of hurting. Telling the agent you have sensitivities will probably make him or her tread carefully.
- You have the right to ask the agent to change gloves. Most will do so as a matter of practice.
- Talk your way through it. This is not something to be endured in silence. Give the agent constant feedback, and if the pat-down gets too rough, use phrases like, “I really have to go to the bathroom,” or “Easy there, that’s an old baseball injury” to encourage the TSA employee to back off. The procedure should take no longer than 30 seconds.
- If you’re uncomfortable, say something immediately. TSA agents are trained to tell you where they are about to touch you. They should not touch your genital area, or conduct a cavity search. If an agent is prodding you in a private area, take a step back, say that you are uncomfortable with the procedure, and politely but firmly ask for a supervisor.
Dress right for screening. Avoid short skirts, and don’t forget to wear underwear when you’re flying. Many pat-downs end badly when a passenger isn’t fully covered, and an agent frisks the wrong place. Gentlemen, I’m talking to you, too. Leave those kilts at home!
It’s still a free country. You may express your opinions to the TSA agents you meet at the airport. You may criticize the liquids and gel rule, the scans, the searches, the shoe removal, and anything else you see. However, it isn’t unusual for TSA agents to give vocal critics a secondary screening (I’ve experienced this myself).
My advice? Wait until you’re past the checkpoint to speak your mind. Better yet, vote for a congressional candidate who represents your views on this subject.
COMPLAINING TO THE TSA
Ideally, the resolution would happen in real time. Wait until you get home, and like other travel-related grievances, you may never get a fix.
If something goes wrong with your screening, and you ask for a supervisor, you should probably know a thing or two about the TSA hierarchy:
Transportation Security Officer (TSO) – These are the people who are screening you, sometimes also called “one-stripers” because they have a single stripe on their shoulderboard.
Lead Transportation Security Officer (LTSO) – Also called a “two-striper,” the LTSO has direct oversight in the screening area, and is most likely the first supervisor who will arrive if there’s a complaint.
Supervisory Transportation Security Officer (STSO) – The “three-striper” usually oversees the entire screening area. He or she will be called to the scene if things get serious.
Above them, there are other TSA managers you should be aware of, including the Transportation Security Manager (TSM), the Assistant Federal Security Director for Screening (AFSD), and the highest-ranking TSA employee at the airport, the Federal Security Director (FSD). They don’t wear uniforms, and you are unlikely to ever see them.
Once you’re away from the airport, there are several layers of Area Directors (AD), several flavors of Administrator (Deputy Assistant Administrator, Assistant Administrator, and Deputy Administrator), followed by the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration, also referred to as the TSA Administrator, and last but not least, the Deputy Secretary, and the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
It helps to know this chain of command if something should go wrong. So, for example, if you’ve been patted down, and a “three-striper” is telling you to move along, you can ask for the TSM. Remember to always be polite; it’s actually your secret weapon when you’re trying to resolve a grievance in real time. No one has ever been arrested for being too polite.
If you’re still at the airport, and there’s a chance a screener can address your problem, you should say something. But if additional paperwork is required to get your problem resolved, you may need to wait until you’ve arrived at your destination. For example, allegations of serious screener misconduct like assault or theft need to be documented and reported to the TSA and airport police, so you’ll want to create a paper trail regardless of the outcome of your initial complaint. You’ll also need to file a form for lost or damaged property, or a civil rights complaint. More on that in a sec.
A note about lost, damaged, or stolen property: Some TSA agents have been in the news for pilfering items from checked luggage. Although the agency says it has tried to curb the thefts with a “zero tolerance” policy, it’s better to keep a close eye on your belongings. If you are held up for a pat-down or wanding, politely ask the agent to bring your personal belongings over where you can see them during the procedure.
Don’t ever check anything valuable, and take reasonable steps to secure your luggage by closing all latches in your carry-on bag and making it difficult to easily access your valuables. That way, if they decide to go after your bag, they’ll have to work for it and they won’t get anything of value if they do. (Note: TSA agents can open your checked baggage to inspect it. Don’t leave anything of value in there. Ever.)
Beyond what’s explained on the TSA site about the claim process, there are a few things they won’t tell you. The claims process can take a long time (sometimes up to six months!), and I hear from lots of travelers who are unsuccessful at it. One of the problems is that the appeals process seems to be something of a loop. The denials often appear arbitrary, and lead to more denials, regardless of whether your case has any merit. The reason you don’t hear more passengers griping about the system isn’t that the agency is quickly replacing the items its agents damaged or stole during screening; it’s that passengers simply fail to file a claim when they have one, believing it will never be processed.
Yes. You can send an appeal, along with more information that might persuade the TSA to change its mind, to the following address:
TSA Claims Management Branch (TSA-9)
ATTN: (YOUR CONTROL NUMBER) Reconsideration
601 South 12th Street
Arlington, VA 20598-6009
Or you can sue the agency. No, seriously — that’s what the TSA recommends.
No. The TSA’s main Twitter account, @TSA, is normally used for agency messaging, and doesn’t interact with passengers, but it would be inaccurate to say TSA doesn’t pay attention to the online chatter. It does, but mostly for PR reasons. I haven’t seen it reverse a claim denial because of something a passenger said via social media.
The TSA also fields general questions from the traveling public through its @AskTSA Twitter account. The interactions are limited, but it’s a productive first step toward a more meaningful dialog. Response times can take up to 24 hours. (For more information, see: What can you take on the plane? Let’s Ask TSA!)
The other major type of grievance is the civil rights complaint. You’ll find instructions for how to file one on the TSA site. What won’t they tell you? That’s difficult to say. I’ve never actually heard from anyone who has filed a successful civil rights complaint with the TSA. If the process is anything like its luggage claims, then it is slow, and for many, absolutely pointless.
With any luck, you’ll never end up at the end of your appeals process. Instead, you’ll avoid having to file a complaint.