The Insider: Read this before your next TSA screening

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

Want to get through the TSA screening process as quickly and painlessly as possible? Sure you do.

How do I prepare for screening?
There are tried and true ways to make your screening 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.

• Demagnetize. You’ve been through the magnetometer before, so you should 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 tends to make the machine scream.

• No jacket required. If you can avoid wearing a jacket, do it. Jackets 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 nervous, you could get a secondary screening.

How do the experts do it?

Card-carrying frequent fliers are members of Pre-Check or have access to the special first-class lines, so they move through the system much faster than us ordinary mortals. But even when their preferred lines aren’t available, they know how to get around the masses.

• Look for the line without the scanner. Those lines tend to move faster, because the body scanner adds anywhere between 30 seconds to a minute of screening time. And 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.

• Follow the suits. Business travelers can sniff out the shortest lines. Follow the passengers in the blue blazers, and you’re practically guaranteed a quicker screening.

• 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 electronics, make sure there’s a TSA-approved laptop case (that way, you won’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.

Do my liquids and gels really need to go in a plastic bag on the conveyor belt?
Enforcement of the TSA’s 3-1-1 rule is erratic and unpredictable. 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 find it absurd. (Chances are, the agents enforcing it think the rule absurd, too.)

What if I disagree with all this security theater?
It’s a free country, at least the last time I checked. 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, you should be advised that TSA agents are known to give vocal critics a punitive secondary screening (I’ve experienced this myself) or to slow the screening process to the point where you could miss your flight. My advice? Wait until you’re past the checkpoint to speak your mind.

Should I opt out of the full body scanner?
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: You step into the scanner, empty your pockets, 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. 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 reason. First, the scanners can look through your clothes, allowing a screener to see you au naturel. And 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.

TIP: Which line is least likely to end up in a scanner? The family line. Despite its insistence that the scanners are safe for passengers of all ages, TSA is reluctant to scan kids and pregnant women. Because no one wants to be stuck behind a family, those lines often are shorter, too.

Who should get scanned?
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. I can’t recommend the current scanners to anyone.

Who should not get scanned?
You should definitely avoid a scanner if you are pregnant or might be pregnant. Parents, keep your kids away from the scanners. If you’ve already been exposed to a lot of radiation or are being medically treated with radiation, you might want to steer clear of the machines, too. If you do not want a TSA screener to see images of your unclothed body, don’t go. Some machines do have privacy software that is said to make you look like a stick figure on the scan, but I’ve also heard reports of the scanners generating detailed and explicit images of passengers.

How do I say “no” to a scan?
Politely tell your screener that you would prefer not to go through the scanner. The agent will probably do one of two things: 1) try to convince you the scanner is 100 percent safe or tell you that a scan is required (neither is true); or 2) manually search your person, which is called a pat-down, or ask for a screener of the same gender to pat you down. By the way, if a screener insists you use the scanner, calmly say, “I would like to opt out, please.” You have the right to refuse the scan, and this puts the agent on notice that you are aware of your rights. Try to be as polite and non-confrontational as possible if it gets to this stage.

How do you survive a pat-down with your dignity intact?
Personally, I believe no one should have to choose between being scanned and patted down, and I’m strongly opposed to this method of screening. And while a vast majority of pat-downs are conducted without incident, some go terribly wrong. Too many. 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 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.

• 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 nudge the officer into backing 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.

TIP: 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. And gentlemen, I’m talking to you, too. Leave those kilts at home!

I’ll have more on the TSA grievance process tomorrow.

(Photo: to m focus/Flickr)

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