No matter how prepared you are, airport delays are inevitable. If your bag’s overweight, expect to take a few minutes just to unpack, redistribute your things, and re-pack again to appease an airline attendant. If there’s a line just to check-in, well, that could take an extra 30 minutes with the family of 12 ahead of you and several strollers in tow. And then, of course, there’s the security line.
Over on a recent Reddit thread, u/pooldoost described their frustration with so-called “random selections” for additional security screening. “Every time I travel domestically or internationally, I am ‘randomly selected’ around 70-80% of the time,” they write. “... I would love to hear what TSA/Airport Security agents think, as well as any tips to stop getting selected [because] it has literally become a joke.”
So what is this “enhanced security” process? Who gets chosen, and why? And how can you stop getting chosen, if you’re consistently targeted?
How enhanced screening works
As we’ve written before, here’s how you’ll know you’ve been chosen for additional screening: At first, you might have trouble printing your boarding pass or checking in at home. When you get to the airport and check in with an airline attendant, you’ll be asked a few additional questions about your travel plans and then receive a boarding pass labelled with the acronym “SSSS” or Secondary Security Screening Selection/Selectee.
Editor's Note: This procedure is mainly found in the U.S., although variations of it will appear internationally.
From here, you’ll head to security and likely be brought to a different line for extra screening when you show your boarding pass to airport staff; while the process varies depending on the particular airport, this might involve going through a metal detector and body scanner (maybe more than once), a full-body pat-down, and your carry-on checked for explosive residue. (In some instances, depending on the wait at your security line, it may actually prove quicker than waiting in that line.)
Despite America's TSA claiming the process is “random,” it isn’t without significant criticism. In 2012, 32 written complaints from U.S. federal officers working in Boston’s Logan Airport reported issues of agents racial profiling in its additional screening process. “They just pull aside anyone who they don’t like the way they look—if they are black and have expensive clothes or jewellery, or if they are Hispanic,” one officer told the New York Times.
In 2017, the ACLU also analysed 13,000 TSA documents, which, among other significant findings, found that some officers referred passengers to additional screening far more than others, “a troubling indication that the TSA’s ‘indicators’ are subjective and arbitrary,” the ACLU’s website reads.
Why you might be selected
What then might influence whether you’re chosen for enhanced screening in the U.S. and abroad? Well, we’ll preface this by stating the obvious: The TSA isn’t forthcoming about its selection process. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website, the details that make up its algorithm cannot be made public for “security reasons.” (What we do know is that TSA uses Secure Flight, a pre-screening process that involves identifying “low and high-risk passengers before they arrive at the airport by matching their names against trusted traveller lists and watch lists.”) In other words, if you share your name with someone on the “No Fly” list, you will likely be stopped.
One other theory is that they determine your “risk” based on what might be considered “suspicious behaviour,” like buying a one-way ticket or paying for your flight in cash. As we’ve written before, you might also be selected if you’re flying to or from what’s considered a high-risk country.
This story has been updated since its original publication.