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Curious about what goes on behind the scenes during airport security screenings? Read on. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Demystifying the TSA Checkpoint

With the possible exception of fares, no aspect of air travel is more misunderstood than the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint.

Christopher Elliott, Nat Geo Travel’s consumer advocacy guru, busts the most common myths:

Myth: There’s a “good” and a “bad” time to be flying, in terms of getting through the TSA screening area faster.

Reality: TSA scales back its staffing during slow times and ramps up its checkpoints with employees during busy times. Predicting a better time to go through security is difficult. You go when you need to fly, and if you’re traveling at a busy time of day, give yourself an extra 15 minutes or so on top of the hour that the TSA recommends to get through security—just to be safe.

Myth: The TSA mobile application, which uses crowdsourcing for airport wait times and conditions, is the best way to know how long you’ll have to wait.

Reality: Not necessarily true. The mobile app relies on passengers to report their wait times, and the content is controlled by the TSA, which hosts the app. It shouldn’t be your only source of information. Check the TSA Status website, which specializes in screening area conditions and reports on the location of body scanners and whether they are currently being used.

Myth: Everyone you encounter in the screening area is a TSA “officer” whose instructions must be followed to the letter.

Reality: No. Some of the uniformed employees you’ll meet prior to reaching the security checkpoint are contracted out by the airlines for queue management and are not trained or authorized to conduct inspections.

Either way, none of the TSA workers have actual law enforcement authority, even though they refer to themselves as “officers.” If they need to make an arrest, they typically have to call airport police. If a TSA employee gives you instructions that you are not comfortable with, you can politely refuse. The worst that can happen is that the agent will call the police and you will get to explain the situation to a third party.

Myth: You can be selected for a secondary security screening for any reason, and it might even be random.

Reality: It’s been years since someone complained to me about randomly getting the legendary “SSSS” (Secondary Security Screening Selection) marked on a boarding pass, which, as the name implies, instructs agents to give you a secondary screening—a second look to make sure you’re not carrying any contraband.

And, while the TSA won’t comment either way, many frequent travelers agree that triggers for getting the ol’ once-over can include paying for your tickets with cash, flying one way, and, of course, having a name that matches one on the terrorist watch list. You can also set off the magnetometer or body scanner.

Myth: American passengers love to bring guns and other dangerous weapons on the plane. Thank goodness the TSA is there to stop them!

Reality: TSA likes to brag about weapons confiscations, but the truth is, virtually all of the “dangerous” weapons it confiscates are brought through the screening area by accident.

Myth: TSA agents have access to extensive information about you at their fingertips.

Reality: Hardly. Agents can’t ping the DMV database for speeding tickets or pull up your criminal record. They do vet travelers against terrorist watch lists. For more information on what the government has on you, see its Secure Flight page.

Myth: If you have a disagreement with a TSA agent, you’ll be added to some kind of no-fly list.

Reality: As of now, it isn’t a crime to disagree with the TSA, or even to be a critic (I should know). You’ll only be added to the terrorist watch list if, as the name suggests, you are a suspected terrorist. The TSA doesn’t keep the watch list; it’s actually maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center, an arm of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Myth: You must answer a TSA agent’s questions if he or she engages you in a “chat down.”

Reality: If the questions are too personal, you can refuse to answer. You will be subjected to a secondary screening, which you can endure in silence.

Myth: Behavior Detection Officers are mind-readers. They know if you are harboring unpatriotic thoughts.

Reality: Nope. These specially trained agents (part of the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program, or SPOT) can tell if you’re nervous, at best. Nothing more.

  • Tip: If you’re a frequent traveler, you may want to consider joining the TSA Pre-Check program in order to avoid some screening procedures. Bear in mind that while the program may expedite your screening, it can’t promise that you’ll avoid a scan or pat-down.

Christopher Elliott (on Twitter @elliottdotorg) is Traveler’s consumer advocate and pens the “Problem Solved” column for the magazine. Find more helpful tips in his book How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler.