Understanding The TSA & How To Be Prepared For The Security Screen

“Go safe, move safe, stay safe, leave safe, and then back safe…  Wishing you a safe journey.”   -Unknown

If you’re like me, the airport security screen gives you a bit of anxiety. The experience can include agents barking orders (sometimes conflicting), having to partially unpack, and the occasional way-too-personal pat down by a stranger, just to identify a few fun features. It is just not a comfortable experience for me. Does anyone else out there hate this part of flying?

I wrote this blog for those of us with TSA-induced anxiety. My hope is that by understanding the TSA, maybe we can manage the experience better.

What is the TSA?

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security, both of which were created as a response to the September 11, 2001 attacks.   Most of us will come into contact with these government agencies when we fly and find ourselves in the airport security line.

According to the TSA website, www.tsa.gov, the TSA screens approximately 1.4 million checked bags and 4.9 million carry-on items for explosives and other dangerous items daily and is responsible for screening approximately two million passengers a day (over 700 million a year) at 440 U.S. airports.  Numbers like this are very impressive when considering there are only 44,000 TSA officers who are responsible for the security of more than 20,000 domestic flights and 2,000 outbound international flights per day.

Did you know?

Did you know that the TSA deploys Federal Air Marshals on U.S.-flagged aircraft throughout the world, 365 days a year? Federal Air Marshals in the aviation sector operate in tight quarters at 30,000 feet and are required to meet some of the most demanding firearms requirements in federal government service. These are the agents in the air who deal with passengers who are unruly and any other threatening events that take place in the air. Knowing that these agents are present is comforting but because they fly out of uniform, I can’t help but assess fellow passengers as we board the plane to see if I can guess which frequent flyer is there to keep the peace.

Also, did you know that passenger screening begins long before you arrive at the airport? After an airline reservation is made, the passenger’s name is checked at TSA’s Secure Flight facilities. The Secure Flight program collects the personal information necessary to conduct effective matching and then transmits screening instructions to the airlines to identify low-risk passengers eligible for TSA Pre✓®, individuals to be placed on the dreaded list for enhanced screening, and those who will receive standard screening.

And finally, did you know that while the TSA is known mostly for its screening at U.S. airports, they are also responsible for safeguarding 4 million miles of roads, more than 611,000 bridges, and nearly 140,000 miles of railroad tracks? The TSA also supports maritime security efforts along approximately 12,000 miles of coastline and over 25,000 miles of waterways and the department also plays an important role in protecting the country’s 2.7 million miles of natural gas and oil pipelines.

Not-so-familiar TSA practices

Inspection Notices: If you are a frequent, or maybe even a not-so-frequent flyer, you have likely discovered a TSA inspection notice inside your suitcase when you reach your destination.  This is to notify you that a TSA officer has indeed opened your suitcase and conducted an inspection of your belongings.  A little creepy, right?

Locks: If you wish to secure your luggage with a lock, be sure to look for the TSA-approved locks. The TSA has been provided universal “master” keys so that certain branded locks may not have to be cut to inspect baggage. These locks are commercially available, and the packaging on the locks should indicate that they may be opened by TSA officers. If you use a lock that TSA officers do not have access to, they will remove any locks, if necessary, during their inspection.

Unpredictability in screening procedures: The TSA regularly incorporates unpredictable security measures, both seen and unseen.  The unpredictability of the screening process is a security measure in itself with the goal of achieving the highest levels of security. Because of this, your security screen may vary from time to time and from airport to airport.  For example, for your outbound flight, you may be asked to remove your electronics for inspection but for your inbound flight, you might be told that it is not necessary to remove them.  This does not imply that there is no inspection being done, however.    

Preparing to fly

As noted earlier, the TSA screen starts when a ticket is purchased. So, if the TSA is preparing for you to fly before you get to the airport, consider that you should be prepared for them as you pack to leave for your trip. Keep in mind that you might need to remove shoes, belts, and electronics but even in a standard screening line, these procedures may vary. Being flexible, prepared, and more organized you are can help your screen go smoothly. If this part of flying causes anxiety for you (me too!), using these tips and referring to the TSA website as you prepare for your trip can help you to address your concerns.

Packing: TSA agents may ask that items be removed from your bag if the X-ray scan is not clear. As you pack, don’t overstuff your bag, and do what you can to keep an organized bag to ease the screen.

3-1-1 Liquid Rule: Each passenger may carry liquids, gels, and aerosols in travel-size containers that are 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters. Each passenger is limited to one quart-size bag of liquids, gels, and aerosols. Common travel items that must comply with the 3-1-1 liquids rule include toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, mouthwash, and lotion. Items that are larger than 3.4 ounces, regardless of the amount inside, must be in checked luggage.

Make it easier for you: Wear slip-on shoes but please bring or wear socks (those airport floors are pretty gross!). Empty pockets, remove a watch and stow your cell phone in a bag pocket before getting to the security line. This prevents loss and you can put it all back where you need it while you wait at the gate.  Ladies, limit hairclips or other accessories that might set off a metal detector.  I like to wear my hair up and out of my face but because that shows as some kind of “void” during the screening, I often must have a pat by an agent. To avoid this, I wear my hair down and put it up on the other side of security! BE INFORMED: if you aren’t sure if you can bring an item with you through security and onto the plane, check the TSA website.  If you are still unsure, pack the item in your checked bag or don’t bring it!

Arrive early! Have you ever been in a security line only to find that the passenger behind you is having a bit of a conniption because the screening process is taking too long and they are now late for their flight?  Easy solution!  Be sure to arrive at the airport with plenty of time to do all the steps that are required to get you from the front door of the terminal to your seat on the plane.  Your lack of planning or tardiness will not impress the TSA agents and they are under no obligation to put you in front of the other passengers who arrived with plenty of time to meet their flights. 

Carry-on Baggage Screening in Standard Lanes

 Electronics: Be prepared to remove personal electronic devices larger than a cell phone from your carry-on bag and place them into a bin.  This will include laptops, tablets, e-readers, and handheld game consoles.

Food & Beverages: In most cases, food or snacks such as fruit, health bars, and sandwiches can stay inside your carry-on bag. I often pack snacks to travel but don’t open them until after the security screen. A sealed bag usually does not require screening.

Liquids are generally a no-no during the TSA inspection and if you bring a bottle of water with you, it will be confiscated or you will be told to throw it away. Plan to bring an empty water bottle and fill it after the security screen.

Exemptions: Medically necessary items are not included in the 3-1-1 rule and do not need to be included in a zip-top bag for liquid inspection. However, an inspection will be required. Be prepared to remove these items from your carry-on bag for separate screening. You are responsible for displaying, handling, and repacking any medically necessary items when screening is required.

Be sure to alert an agent that you are transporting medically necessary liquids or medication that is delivered by injection, IV bags, pumps, syringes, or require freezer packs. Doing so helps the screening process to be uninterrupted and smooth. Be prepared for your items to be carefully scrutinized and the agent may ask you to submit to a swab screening to test for exposure to explosives.

Medications in pill or other solid form may undergo security screening as well. It is recommended that medication be clearly labeled to facilitate the screening process, especially when traveling internationally. Medication can undergo a visual or X-ray screening and may also be tested for traces of explosives.

Other exemptions include sunscreen lotion; prescription liquids, creams, and gels, breast milk, infant formula, baby/toddler food (to include puree pouches), and drinks; ice, gel, and freezer packs used to cool breast milk, infant formula, and other medically necessary items; as well as hand Sanitizer up to 12 ounces (check the TSA website for changes to this item).

A TSA officer will be available to guide you through the process in these instances so be sure to alert them to your needs in advance of your screen.

I would want to encourage any fellow flyer that following the direction of TSA personnel and the flight crew on your plane is required BY LAW.  Failing to follow their requests could mean that you find yourself under arrest and escorted from your plane.  That doesn’t sound like fun. 

Even though the security screen always gives me anxiety, I try to remember that the TSA is in place to protect the flying public–that means me, you, and the people we love.  The agents have a serious job to do which they need to do well and as quickly as possible while dealing with oceans of often irritable flyers.  The agents are nice people, doing the best that they can.  Try to be patient, understanding, and kind.

*Photo provided courtesy of Unsplash.

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