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)

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend