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.

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)

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