11 February 2020

Okay, the second part of the headline is only partly true.  I’m a frequent flyer, so I get free lounge access before international flights. I always try to get to the airport with enough time to hang out in the lounge for awhile, especially if it’s at an international airport , because some of the American Airlines’ Ambassador Lounges in U.S. airports charge for food. Some of them have fresh guacamole in the afternoons or avocado toast in the morning, though, so you can see why I like to take my chances.


Back to the dreaded SSSS. If you’re a frequent traveler, you may have received a boarding pass with SSSS on it or seen people being pulled aside at security or even at the boarding gate.  The SSSS designation means you have been flagged for extra security. SSSS stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection (or Selectee) and it means you’re going to be spending a lot longer with the fine folks at security.

Boarding Pass with SSSS CC BY-SA 3.0
Boarding Pass with SSSS CC BY-SA 3.0

An SSSS check involves a thorough check of your person and possessions. The security agent will send you through the metal detector at the TSA check then give you the pat-down reserved for people who have set off the machine. I haven't been strip-searched, so that's not part of the process. Yet.

Security Screening - public domain

While you stand with your bag, the security agent will open every compartment of your carry-on luggage and check each item. They might ask you questions about items that catch their eye. They will ask you about your travels. Your tech devices will be swabbed with their special explosives detecting cloth, as will your hands. It takes about a half hour from when you go through the metal detector.


On a recent flight back from Taiwan, I was flagged at my LA connection (not sure that could have happened between my SSSS check in Japan and my brief layover in LA, but the SSSS was there on my boarding card, so TSA did its thing). I was extra-stressed, because I had a short (to lounge-loving me) layover and had to wait an extra half hour before the TSA manager on duty deigned to come get me for the extra scrutiny. I say "deigned" because I could see her standing on the other side of security, not engaged with any other passenger.

I had some fragile gifts in my carry-on bag. I told the TSA agents that some of the items were fragile and they were very careful, checking with me about which needed special care and making sure nothing was broken. Having heard stories and seen videos, I was grateful I had a good person doing my SSSS check.


Year of the Pig piggy bank from Taiwan Lantern Festival in Pingtung
Year of the Pig piggy bank from Taiwan Lantern Festival in Pingtung

On a personal note, these SSSS searches are especially irritating when you've got your full allowance of carry-on bags with you, because you're delayed getting onto the plane, increasing the risk that you'll have to gate-check a bag.

That said, on a flight back to NYC from LHR, everyone who was flagged SSSS was gathered together at the gate and taken to a separate room for processing. We ended up being among the first people to board the plane. Not a bad result, but it didn't relieve my anxiety while I waited for the extra scan. 


The SSSS check isn't really all that bad, if you've arrived early and don't have a lot of carry-on items. You get the illusion of additional safety (I suspect some of this is related to customs and not just security concerns) and you get to pack your carry-on bag twice. Okay, the second packing isn't really an advantage, especially if you're rushing to get to your gate, but there's got to be a silver lining, right?