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Reducing Airport Headaches Part 2: TSA

It was the middle of the night in Amman, Jordan. Or maybe it was early morning. It was that time of day where you don’t know what time of day it is because you got the cheapo tickets on a long haul trip from Hong Kong to Barcelona by way of both Bangkok and Amman. Under the undeniable haze of jet lag we were being shuffled through an “in transit” security screening. My husband was pulled aside and his bag searched by a security guard. After removing piece by piece almost everything in the suitcase he very carefully and ever so slowly pulls out……. a shoe horn and points to it. In very broken English he asks where we are going. “Spain”, my husband replies. The guard wags his finger and shakes his head. “This: no Spain.” He confiscated our shoe horn. Apparently shoe horns are not allowed on flights to Spain.

With the randomness of what constitutes the latest threat (a shoe horn?!??!) and the arbitrary way in which people are searched and screened its no wonder that airport security is one of the most taxing parts of traveling for most people. The long lines, endless restrictions and rules, and intrusive searches are enough to make even the most hardened traveler frustrated and annoyed. Many of us approach security already convinced it will be a dreadful experience.

As annoying as it is I have found a change in perspective has made it much more tolerable. I now think of all those inspiring WWII home front posters when I go to security. The fact is airport security is really one of the front lines of the global war on terrorism. You are much more likely to be killed crossing the street or driving a car than from a terrorist attack. Much of that is due to the good guys at TSA here at home as well as airport security guards the world over. They are imperfect and the system has many flaws but despite the great increase in global terrorism flying is pretty darn safe. And the war on terrorism hasn’t required a draft and no one is telling us to plant a victory garden because of sugar and meat rationing. The war effort merely asks the flying population to put up with increased security screening. This is our civic duty; our patriotic responsibility. Approach the security line like the women in the iconic WWII posters—We can do it!

Once you change your perspective on what those long lines are all about there are a few practical steps you can take to improve your chances of a smooth experience. First and foremost get to the airport early. (I’ll be blogging about how to get free or discounted access to airport lounges in a future post which makes the waiting rather enjoyable so keep your eyes out for that.) TSA is constantly shaking things up both as a result of new intelligence and also just to throw would be terrorists off. For that reason it’s important to be prepared for almost anything to require further inspection. Getting to the airport early will ensure you won’t feel the extra anxiety of being rushed.

The primary items you need to be concerned about are: electronics, liquids and gels, food and powders. All of these items need to be easily accessible for placement in an inspection bin. The easiest way to do this is through the use of a variety of sizes of Ziploc bags. Sometimes they are difficult to find, but Ziploc actually makes a wide array of sizes and they are all extremely useful when traveling. Ziploc Big Bag Large, 2 Gallon Ziploc and quart sizes are all convenient to purchase for dealing with TSA.

First you should put all your liquids and gels in a quart size bag to easily pull out for inspection. Be sure each individual container is less than 3.4 ounces or less. Recent changes also now require powder like substances greater than 12 ounces to be presently separately (type makeup in the TSA search link here). This includes pressed as well as loose powders (think blush). I would follow the same procedure with powders as with liquids and gels as the powders must be placed in a separate bin for x-ray screening. Also remember that there are some items we may not consider powders, liquids or gels that TSA will confiscate. I still lament the loss of a small jar of creamed honey from France that was so thick it really wasn’t a liquid or gel, but since there was a degree of viscosity the agent took it from me. (I’m not sure what they do with the stuff they confiscate, but I sure hope someone got to enjoy that honey….)

If you have multiple devices– laptops, phones, iPads, e-readers— put them in an easily accessible pocket in your carry on or you can combine them into an appropriately sized Ziploc Big Bag. You may be asked to remove them from the clear Ziploc too for further inspection but at least they will all be in one place in your bag and you won’t need to shuffle through everything to find them.

Food is a new category of items requiring further inspection. I can’t tell you how crazy it makes the whole process when you are traveling with kids on flights that don’t feed you and the agent suddenly tells you to take out all food items. They don’t always ask, but it’s becoming more common so do yourself a favor and put all snacks in one large baggie so they are easy to pull out. Since the bag is clear it’s unlikely that you will even need to remove the items from the baggie and it makes it so much easier on the other end to just grab the bag and shove it back in your carryon.

I also want to mention here the dreaded SSSS (Seconday Security Screening Selection). This little designation is randomly assigned to an assorted group of passengers every day. It is totally random—which means your three year old might get it. Or your 95 year old grandmother. Your first indication will be that you won’t be able to check in online or at a kiosk. If it’s printed on your boarding pass you will be subjected to a variety of increased measures. Everything from swabbing of your carry-ons for explosive substances to pat downs at the security check point or even at the gate. You may even hear your name called out of the boarding line as happened to my teenage daughter. Don’t take it personally. Try not to get angry. It’s totally random and names are generated by a computer. They do this to keep us all safe and patience and kindness will do a lot to minimize the inconvenience. I also learned when I got the SSSS while transferring flights in Iceland that they will hold the plane should you get pulled out for screening as you board the plane so just try to relax and go with the flow.

On a final note if you travel frequently I highly recommend TSA precheck, and for international travelers, Global Entry, which includes TSA precheck. For a fee (or even free with some credit cards) and a background check you can have five years of reducing security screening. (Pre Check does not preclude you from the computer generated SSSS though).

In sum if you simply stock up on Ziploc baggies and remember that security screenings are there to protect you and keep you safe then the whole experience of airport security will be a whole lot smoother for you.