For any frequent flyer, there is nothing worst than not being able to print a boarding pass at home or use a mobile app. Whenever I receive a notification that I must print my boarding pass at the airport I know something is wrong. The ticket is either issued incorrectly or something else. Recently, the something else has been due to “SSSS” on the boarding pass. Whenever this happens, it will add a minimum of an additional 15-25 minutes to one’s security screening.
What Does SSSS Mean
SSSS is short for Secondary Security Screen Selection or the “quad” as the TSA calls it. It is supposedly only for high-risk flyers. Yet for several years, it also includes anyone who visits or transits through Turkey. As the “war on terror” has grown beyond the usual suspects of Afghanistan, Yemen, and Iraq; now anyone who visits a “high-risk” country suffers SSSS on future flights.
Turkey shares a border with Syria and is an entry point for western recruits joining ISIS. Since it’s a known fact that many individuals are joining ISIS and then returning home via Turkey, Turkey is now considered to be a high-risk nation. This is despite Turkey being part of NATO. Thousands of travelers have been complaining of suffering months of SSSS boarding passes after transiting and/or visiting Turkey.
Interesting enough, the same is not true for people who visit other countries which neighbor Syria. In 2016, I vacationed in Jordan. After returning home, I never was subjected to SSSS screens. I’ve also have been in Palestine and Israel since the rise of ISIS. Each time, returning home without SSSS on my boarding pass or dealing with the fallout for months to follow. Even Egypt, which has seen several ISIS style attacks will not warrant future SSSS screens from my recent travel experience.
I did not visit Turkey, in fact I actually did not even leave the airport, but I did transit via Istanbul. Initial reports of the SSSS boarding pass issue with Turkey were from people who vacationed in Turkey. Now, it appears that even a connection in Turkey will land an SSSS on boarding passes for months to follow. My connection was on an award ticket in First Class and Business Class to Podgorica. I flew Seattle-Chicago-Frankfurt-Istanbul-Podgorica on a mixture of United, Lufthansa, and Turkish airlines. My layover in Istanbul was 6 hours, but I never left the airport or cleared customs. After all, what am I going to do between midnight and 6am?
What Is Included in a TSA SSSS Screen
If you have ever wanted to have your 4th amendment rights violated by the TSA while flying, sign up for a SSSS screening. The process can be dreadfully long and includes a multi-step screening, pat down, and explosive device check. The key takeaway, is every airport and officer has a different process. No two SSSS screens will be the same, but they will be similar. Inconsistency is key with the TSA, but the overall basis of the screen is the same.
First, when the TSA agent scans the boarding pass the screen turns red and requires a lead or supervisor. Next, the supervisor will take your ID and boarding passes and ask you to follow them. Typically, you are placed at the front of the screening line or taken to a lane that is closed. Everything bulky must come out of your bags. This includes ALL electronics, liquids, shoes, empty bottles etc. This step will vary depending on the airport.
All electronic devices must have enough power to be powered on. Even if your laptop turns on when the agent opens the screen, they will require that you power it on again and show them the device is functional. Any device that has a case must come out of the case. This includes cellphones, tablets, e-readers etc. I find that this step is inconsistent between airports. Only some agents will require cases to be removed.
Like a typical TSA screening, shoes and belts must be x-rayed. However, during a SSSS screening even shoes and sandals in your carryon come out of your bag. All liquids of all sizes must be removed from your bags. Yes, this even includes items as small as chap-stick!
The agent will carefully watch as you unpack all your belongings. Next, you will go through three personal screening procedures. First, you must walk through the metal detector forwards and then backwards. The second step is the millimeter wave screening. Finally, the full body pat down is done. Or as I call it the TSA massage and groping. This is always done by a TSA agent of the same gender. A private pat down is available for those who do not like their tits, asses, and genitals caressed in public.
While an agent is thoroughly searching you for explosives, weapons, and other TSA no nos, another agent will manually go through your personal belongings. An explosive scan on each shoe, electronic, and bag pocket is done individually. This process takes 5-10 minutes depending on how many items you are traveling with and the efficiency of the agents.
On a typical work trip, I have my running shoes, sandals, and a pair of dress shoes. That alone is three explosive device checks. In addition, an explosive search and scan of every pocket of every bag is part of the SSSS additional screening. The agent will also dump out any toiletries or liquids for your small TSA approve bag and search them for explosives.
Once the agents give the go ahead, you are free to pack your bags and continue your trip. The agent will scan your boarding pass and ID and fill out some paperwork. Some agents will offer to pack your bag for you, but they do a terrible job. Rember, the TSA has no vested interest in your items. The agents I’ve seen pack my bag literally throw everything into the bag. The TSA agents take zero consideration that I have packed my bag a very particular way to reduce the ironing I must do upon arrival.
Finally, the TSA agent will return your boarding pass and ID and return to their typical duties. Ensure the TSA stamps the boarding pass or punches it as the gate agent will check the boarding pass when boarding the plane. Once again, when the agent scans your boarding pass, the agent gets a notification of your special SSSS status. If you are connecting in another airport, DO NOT lose your first boarding pass. If your connecting boarding pass also reads SSSS you will have to show the boarding agent your first boarding pass. Otherwise, the TSA will have to screen you again at the gate. Thankfully, usually only the first boarding pass reads SSSS.
How to Avoid the SSSS
One would think that having TSA Pre-Check and/or Global Entry would be enough to avoid SSSS. I personally have a Known Traveler ID number and have it on each reservation. Yet, this is not enough. Passengers do suffer from SSSS screening randomly and if they visit Turkey. The agents at the airport do not know why people get SSSS’d, but there are some likely reasons.
The enhance SSSS screenings can happen to people who have unusual travel patterns. An unusual travel pattern includes buying last minute tickets, one way flights, or visiting select countries. In addition, some people with the same name as those on the do not fly list also suffer from overuse of SSSS.
If you suffer from SSSS consistently you can apply for a redress number. This takes about two months. The process is simple, but just like airport security lines, the TSA administration offices are slow! Once you receive a redress number save it in every frequent flyer profile and assure to enter it while booking new reservations. This should stop the dreadful SSSS. If you have SSSS because you recently went to Turkey, the SSSS should end after 4-6 months. Several travelers report the SSSS screens ending after 4-6 months after their return from Turkey. Your personal experience my vary.
Final Thoughts on SSSS
SSSS screenings are dreadful and the TSA is wasting millions of dollars and precious time screening people who are not high risk. I have been part of TSA Precheck since its inception and Global Entry since the pilot stage. If I really am a high risk traveler, I would not be in either program. Even when flying home from Europe with a SSSS boarding pass after my connection in Turkey, I was able to use Global Entry. On my most recent trip abroad, not only did I use Global Entry, but CBP did not require a secondary inspection. If I was high risk, this would not be the case.
95% of TSA screening tests fail to detect actual threats. The TSA needs to stop wasting all of our times and stop profiling travelers who transit through Turkey as a whole. This slows downs the process and is making me want to stop traveling. Yet, as a business traveler, coming off the road is not an option unless I find a new job. And at this time, that is not feasible. I just hope my redress number comes quickly and in the meantime, I will be checking my suitcase to reduce my SSSS screening time.
Thanks TSA I look forward to hours and hours of my time and yours wasted each week over the next few months.