The Insider: Mythbusting the TSA screening experience

Editor’s Note: This is part two of the Insider series on managing the TSA when you travel. Here’s part one. As always, please send me any suggestions on topics or content I may have overlooked.

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With the possible exception of fares, no aspect of air travel is more misunderstood than the TSA checkpoint. So as a public service, I’m going to deal with some of the common myths about TSA screening.

Myth: There’s a “good” and a “bad” time to be flying, in terms of getting through the TSA screening area faster.

Reality: 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.

Myth: The “expert” traveler line is the quickest one.

Reality: Unlikely. TSA tries to separate travelers by type before screening at some airports, dividing them into “casual”, “expert”, and “family” lanes. But because everyone thinks the expert lane is faster, it’s also the most-used, which makes the wait time longer. The airport lines are self-selecting and they are generally not enforced by the screeners — in other words, no one is going to tell you to get out of the “expert” line if you look like a tourist. You may have more luck in the family line.

Myth: The TSA Mobile application is the best source for airport wait times and conditions.

Reality: Not necessarily true. The mobile app relies on passengers to report their wait times, and the content is controlled by the TSA. It shouldn’t be your only source of information. Check the TSA Status website, which specializes in screening area conditions and reports on the location of body scanners, and whether they are currently being used.

Myth: Everyone you encounter in the screening area is a TSA “officer” and their instructions must be followed to the letter.

Reality: Absolutely not. Some of the uniformed employees you’ll meet at the screening work for the airport, and are not trained or authorized to conduct inspections. Either way, 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.

Myth: You can be selected for a “secondary” screening for any reason, and it might even be random.

Reality: It’s been years since someone complained about randomly getting the legendary “SSSSS” mark on a boarding pass, which instructs agents to give you a secondary screening. There are several well-known triggers for getting the ol’ once-over, including paying for your tickets with cash, flying one way, having a name that matches one on the terrorist watchlist, and flying while Middle Eastern. You can also set off the magnetometer. (More on that soon.)

Myth: American passengers love to bring guns and other dangerous weapons on the plane. Thank goodness the TSA is there to stop them!

Reality: TSA likes to brag about weapons confiscations, but the truth is, almost all of the “dangerous” weapons it confiscates are brought through the screening area by accident. The TSA is, in fact, stopping nothing. None of the passengers whose contraband has been taken have been charged with terrorism. They just forgot to check their suitcase.

Myth: TSA agents have access to extensive information about you at their fingertips.

Reality: Hardly. It’s actually pretty easy to print a fake boarding pass and get through a screening area, although I wouldn’t recommend it. Agents can’t verify your flight and ping the DMV database for speeding tickets and pull up your criminal record — there’s just not enough time. The empolyees 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.

Myth: If you have a disagreement with a TSA agent, you’ll be added to some kind of no-fly list.

Reality: As of now, it isn’t a crime to disagree with the TSA or even to be a loudmouthed critic (I should know). You’ll be added to the terrorist watchlist if, as the name suggests, you are a suspected terrorist.

Myth: You must answer a TSA agent’s questions if he or she engages you in a “chat down.”

Reality: 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.

Myth: Behavior Detection Officers are mindreaders. They know if you are harboring unpatriotic thoughts.

Reality: Um, no. These specially-trained agents can tell if you’re nervous, at best. But if they knew what you were thinking, they’d probably start to cry.

Did I miss any myths? The comments are open. Tomorrow, I’m moving on the the scan/patdown dilemma. You won’t want to miss it.

(Photo: slandete/Flickr)

35 thoughts on “The Insider: Mythbusting the TSA screening experience

  1. Myth: If you go thru the nude scanner you won’t be groped.

    Reality: Those scanners have such high false positive results you will likely be groped in addition to being photographed nude.

    The scanners can be fooled by wrinkles in clothing:

    I witnessed this myself last weekend in Jacksonville, FL due to them having the new kind of nude scanner that shows a cartoon character outline right at the scanner so everyone can see it. It shows blocks where there are supposed to be “hidden scary weapons”. It said I was smuggling something on the side of my head (not likely, does hairspray trigger false readings too?) and also on my shoulder. I was told to come forward to be groped as the guy told me to stick out my arm that showed me smuggling something. He groped my shoulder.

    As I sat and put my shoes on I watched false reading after false reading. One guy had blocks all over his face, another one had blocks all over his stomach. Every person that showed these false readings had to be groped. If the scanners are useless why use them? Go back to the metal detectors, at least that way you are only groped if you actually have metal on you, instead of imaginary bombs cause by hairspray or wrinkles in your clothing.

    1. Yep. I once wore capri pants that have a pocket with a vertical zipper on the left leg at knee height. The zipper is actually nylon, only the tab is metal. After being x-rayed I was groped from crotch to ankle, although my leg was bare from mid-calf to ankle.

    2. Yes, I’ve been trying to tell people this for the past almost two years.  Going through the scanner doesn’t obviate a grope.  But I grow weary.  So many people still don’t get it.

    3. Yep.  I’ve been through them exactly twice, and both resulted in pat-downs.

      The first time I was unusually late and decided not to opt out to skip the pat-down.  They found an “anomaly at my groin”…which was a paper thin panti-liner. 

      The second time I was basically pushed into one at DCA (the metal detector and AIT are side by side and the TSO took my arm as I took two steps towards the metal detector).  That one found an “anomaly with my chest”.  That’s congenital, so, yeah, and resulted in a brief chest-centric pat-down.

      AIT simply does not keep you from being patted down.

  2. Even before the TSA, there were triggers for getting the secondary screening.  I remember when Hall of Fame baseball player Joe Morgan got stopped.  He eventually sued.  Apparently his big sin was paying for his ticket in cash, carrying around a lot of money, and being black.  They sort of targeted him as a possible drug runner.

  3. How about TSA and transgender folks? I have witnessed a pre-op male to female transsexual being harrassed by TSA agents at IAH.

    Another harrassment I witness alot is TSA bothering single travelers about their refusal to use the nudie machines. I have seen eye rolls and passive aggressive comments. However, I have seen the same agents smile when families refuse. So…why be annoyed at the single traveler?

    1. Good point, every time I opt out in BOS, I get a lecture and argument before they call screener.  One time they even told me I could not opt out.  I asked for a supervisor and was suddenly allowed to opt out.

      1. I will always opt out of the scanner.  Not because I don’t want a TSA agent seeing my junk, but because I’m willing to bet that sometime in the next five years we’re going to find out that the company that makes those machines is lying about how much radiation they put out. And for anyone who doesn’t think a company would do such a thing, do a google search for the Ford Pinto memo.

        1. With the likes of John Holdren being a part of the current administration, I would say it is a good possibility that the machines put out plenty of radiation to cause cancer down the line, and it is being done on purpose.

  4. At LGA I always go through the family line, it is always the quickest as the families with kids and strollers seem to think they are experts.

    1. Some airports have a “family” line, a “casual traveler” line, and an “expert” line. The idea is that by trying to break up folks into groups, it will make the lines move faster and/or give the families a slower paced, less rushed experience for the kids.

      In theory it’s a good idea. In practice, it’s pointless. Agents will direct people to whatever line is shortest and most often, it’s self-policing, so you’ll have families with five kids and a bunch of laptops in the “expert” line.

      They do have a “medical liquids” line for anyone who carries such. These are usually slower because the medical liquids have to be inspected.

      …and knowing is half the battle. 🙂
      (I just showed my age…)

      1. GI Joe!
        About 2 years back I had the unfortunate experience of having to carry a medical liquid for a month.  These were all flights originating in DEN. I disclosed it to the ID Checker and was told to go to any line, place it in the bin, and it would be pulled aside and inspected.  I even allocated an extra 30 minutes for this.
        Each time, bin went through the X-Ray, came out the other side, and not a word was said, noting was inspected, nada.  This was a 16oz bottle, and I had one bottle per week that usually had ~10 oz of liquid left in it Sundays when I would fly out.  I would finish it before my return.
        And people wonder why I have no faith in TSA.

      2. Thanks for explaining. I have never seen that. We stopped flying when the scanners came out and we only flew once the year before that. We used to fly more regularly, and we had about six trips planned for 2011, but we cancelled those in face of the scanners and gropedowns.

        It really makes you wonder what fool dreams all this up. How on earth could they possibly insure that the right people got into the right line?

        It’s like when they call for people with special needs to board first. Everbody rushes up to board. People used to push my husband on his scooter out of the way. Finally, we started parking him right at the ropes so no one could push ahead. (And no folks, that’s not entitlement…we really needed to get him, his equipment, and his luggage settled first before 200 people are squeezing into a tiny tube and getting frustrated by the disabled man holding everything up).

        For the TSA to think that people would just get into the correct line is incredibly stupid. If I saw those lines, I wouldn’t know which one to take. We don’t have children, but I don’t think we’re any kind of experts either. And with all the medically necessary equipment we had to travel with, I certainly don’t think we were casual.

  5. Don’t fly. Period. I don’t understand why people will willingly give up their fourth amendment rights. If people refused the fly, this would go away. I used to travel all over Europe. Now, I drive to my vacations. Would I rather be in Europe? You betcha, but I will not be radiated and I will not be groped. Come on people, stand up already. Stop being complicit sheep!

    1. Not everyone has the luxury to just give up flying. 
      I have to fly every week for work.  I have been trying to find a new job where I don’t have to fly for over 2 years, unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet.  If I don’t fly, I can’t pay my bills.  As far as vacations, I usually visit family, and again, my job, nor any other job I have had has given me enough time off that I could drive the 30 hour drive to go visit my family, and come back in time for work.  Again, flying is the only option there.  Either that or not see my family.
      I don’t like giving up my 4th amendment rights, but I also don’t see quitting my job and/or never seeing my family again as an option.  I bet a lot of other “sheep” are in the same boat.

      1. emanon256, what type of work do you do?  I’m actually looking to get a job where I travel more for work. (My current position has absolutely no travel, and I miss that from several jobs back.)

    2. I wish I could, so does my husband.

      My husband travels for work – when we still lived on the East coast, Amtrak and driving were frequently swapped out for flying, but now we live in the Upper Midwest, where both of those are logistically difficult and far more time consuming.

      Our families are on the East coast.  When my mother had terminal cancer I was the one child who was in the best position to help out, even though I lived furthest away.  When her condition cycled into a place where my parents needed the extra help, the two-three days it would take me to get out there weren’t helpful.  And quite honestly, I wasn’t in a headspace to drive for two solid days without worrying about being in an accident.

      I am firmly anti-TSA, but sometimes, you fly because it’s the best use of your time.  Previous to 9/11, this level of irritation just wasn’t there.

      1. I feel very bad for people who have to fly for work or have to risk sexual assault in order to be with their families. That is a dreadful position to be in. Shame on our government, shame on the president, shame on US corporations for placing innocent, law-abiding citizens in this dreadful position. No one should have to be degraded or give up their constitutional rights in order to have a job or be with their families. People who are in this position have my sympathy. I really don’t know how I would handle this situation myself. I guess each person has to do the best they can.

        However, I feel nothing but contempt for people who are choosing to fly for pleasure…people who care nothing for our precious constitutional rights, people who care nothing for the suffering of others, people who will not sacrifice a little pleasure to protest the police state that our beloved country has become.

        This is obviously not you, Chasmosaur, but I know many people personally for whom this is the case. If everyone who is flying for pleasure stopped flying, it would provide a large dent in the airlines’ profit margin. The airlines would then pressure the government for change.

        This will never happen because so many people are completely self centered. As long as they get what they want and nothing happens to them, the hell with everybody else.

        So people like you get my sympathy, but the others get my contempt.

        1. But people should be degraded or give up constitutional rights to, say, escape deep winter cold for a span of time, visit cultural attractions, or go skiing or hiking or whatever?

          The selfish is the problem, not the destination.  You can live in California and still want to visit Washington, DC or NYC, but not have the vacation time needed to drive or take Amtrak.  I know plenty of business fliers who have little to no problem with the AIT and pat-downs.  (I think it’s weird, but there you go.)

          Don’t make this about your personal decision to give up flying, which is admirable.  (And quite honestly, hitting the pocketbook is the best way for the feds to take notice, and it’s estimated 3 out of 4 trips are made for personal reasons.)  Make it about raising awareness of the illegality of the situation without being dramatic.

          That people must be patted down to board an airplane is horrid – there really isn’t any need to dress it up further or point fingers beyond Washington cronyism, pork and tunnel vision.

  6. Myth:  provided you don’t “opt out” of the scanner, you have a less-than-3% chance of being subjected to a secondary grope

    Reality:  not true if you have any type of disability, metal parts in your body, or prostheses of any kind (including breast prostheses for women who’ve undergone mastectomies).

    I have metal parts in my spine due to major back surgery.  My home airport doesn’t have the scanners yet – they only have the metal detectors, which my metal parts set off every single time.  This results in a full grope-down, in spite of the doctor’s note that I always carry with me describing my metal parts.  So I have a 100% chance of being groped every single time I fly.

    That’s 100%.  See the difference, TSA?

  7. Myth: “You can be selected for a “secondary” screening for any reason, and it might even be random.”

    I’d like to see this one addressed in far more detail.

    For example, when we flew in August, my wife was selected on the way out and the way home.

    On the way out, the metal detector beeped… not because it detected something, but because she was “randomly” selected for additional testing. The additional testing was a bomb swab test on her laptop only (wtf?).

    On the way home, she was supposedly randomly selected for bomb swab testing again, this time BEFORE she went through the metal detector (I guess TSA does things differently in Vancouver).

    Neither of us had ever been selected for bomb testing before, and then she got it twice. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to prove how random this selection process is.

    And as others have commented, it’s certainly no myth that TSA may choose to grope you for any bloody reason they well want.

    As I’ve said before, a friend of mine used to get selected for secondary screening EVERY TIME HE FLEW over the last couple of years. A few months ago, it finally stopped.

    That is, until his last flight home last week, when he took a 18″ tall trophy home with him that he won while he was here. It’s solid wood in the middle, with a metal bowl on the top. TSA asked if he could take it apart. And they not only gave him (and the trophy) the full pat down, they bomb swabbed everything: him, the trophy, his laptop.

    What an effing joke.

  8. Chris, I have been reading your column for a long time and the information is extremely helpful. However, it becomes an adjunct to added anxieties. Reports of the vicissitudes of the unpredictable TSA, creates a lot of anxieites of getting ‘caught’ with a no-no on their list. In the early sixties I traveled around the world four times and to 80 countries and have never experienced the tribulations I go through now.
    On my trip to California last week, I was careful to take a bottle of water of exactly 3oz. My bag was pulled aside where the TSA agent held the bottle up with “I gotcha” smirk, as if she discoverd a bomb. 
    “It’s 3oz’s,” I said.  “Yes, but it is in an 8 oz bottle.” Even the supervisor descended on me. I later checked the rules, and indeed it says, “must be in a 3oz bottle.”

    We have absurdities that challenge us at every turn in our lives. 
    Grin and bear it, is not the answer. I laud those of you who take the time to comment here. 

    However, calling your Congress Person is equally important. I do it weekly on all the ridiculousness and their laws that encroach nedlessly on our freedoms.

    1. I agree that contacting Congressional representatives regularly is quite important, even if they fail to respond or respond with “non-responses.”  Evidence indicates that Congress is being deluged with complaints about the TSA and that it is slowly beginning to re-think its position on the monster it has created.

  9. The only way I’ve found that allows on to pass through TSA screening fairly quickly is to fly in Business or First Class where (at least at some airports) you’ll be put into a “fast-track” lane.

  10. You don’t have to get the “SSSS” on your boarding pass to be selected for whatever the TSA wants to do to you. I didn’t have the “SSSS” the last time I ever flew — Sept 2010 — and I got hassled by the TSA. This was just before the gropes were implemented nationwide. While everyone before me went through the metal detector, I was suddenly stopped and told to go through the scanner. When l declined, I got all kinds of crap from several TSA agents pressuring me (and one yelling at me). 

    Then they made me wait. And wait. And wait. And wait. Even when, at one point, no one was in the security line. It was empty. They all stood around staring at me. I had plenty of time before my flight, but it was clear they were being punitive. Eventually someone came over to wand me.

    Bottom line: getting singled out is done at the TSA’s whim. There’s no logic to it.

  11. Myth: TSA is a worthwhile government agency that keeps Americans safe.

    Reality: TSA has spent billions upon billions of tax dollars and, in 10 years of unjustifiably abusing the traveling public, violating your Constitutional rights, molesting children, attacking tender surgical scars on recent post-surgery patients,  physically strip-searching the elderly and veterans, obfuscating or outright lying about the safety of its ionizing radiation-emitting electronic strip-search machines, trying to stifle any and every photograph and video recording of their wrongdoing despite their own website saying that such recordings are perfectly allowable…they have failed to catch even one terrorist.

    Write your elected officials, demand that they enact legislation to abolish TSA.  This abusive, unconstitutional, un-American, and completely unjustifiable organization must not be allowed to go on existing as it does.

  12. TSA subjects travelers to abusive and humiliating searches for no other reason than having bought a ticket to fly on a commercial airline.  This results in the elderly being Strip Search, people with disabilities being abused, children being groped by uncaring TSA employee and the many other incidents that makes the news almost weekly.

    For starters why is government doing security for private business?

    Why has TSA leadership, John S. Pistole, refused to listen to the public’s disgust with his agency?  It seems Pistole is not up to the task of running such a large agency.  Change is needed!

    TSA needs a major overhaul.  The TSA role should be limited to acting as an oversight agency only.  Require the airlines and airports to protect their property and customers just like every other business in the country.

    Perhaps Congress will finally take its collective finger out of its ears and listen to the citizens of the United States. 

    We have had enough of TSA and its Thugs.

  13. I love the last one about BDOs starting to cry if they could read your mind.  So true.  Just about every TSA’er I encounter gets the, “I’d send you to a North Korean gulag if I could” look.

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