Whether you are on a business trip, taking a vacation or perhaps on a Mileage Run, getting through security gets more frustrating and difficult as time passes. This seems even more prevalent at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening checkpoints. TSA precheck can certainly help in USA airports but traveling internationally the procedures vary greatly from one airport to another. Do you keep shoes on or take them off? Belts on, off? What about items in your pocket?
I fly more than 130,000 air miles annually and I really appreciate airports that make the process of clearing security quick and easy. However, there may occasionally come a time when this dreaded acronym appears on your boarding pass; SSSS!
I like to travel smoothly and move freely between destinations and within airports to maximize lounge enjoyment and minimize security lines. So SSSS is something I never like to see on my boarding pass. Luckily, I have only experienced it twice in nearly a million miles of flying in the past few years.
What is SSSS and What Do Those Letters Mean?
SSSS stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection. Although the SSSS is printed by the airline on your boarding pass. The decision to include you for secondary screening comes from the TSA’s Secure Flight Program, developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to combat terrorism in the post-9/11 world of travel.
If you find those letters on your boarding pass you may think you are in for a longer, more hassled experience getting to board your flight, and you would be right.
Secure Flight is a risk-based passenger prescreening program that enhances security by identifying low and high-risk passengers before they arrive at the airport by matching their names against trusted traveler lists and watch lists.
Although the actual criteria for selection is not revealed, the TSA doesn’t provide the exact reasons that people are selected for secondary screening. However, factors might include frequent travel (uh oh, Mileage Runners,) one-way flights to or from an international location, travel from a country designated as ‘high-risk’ by the State Department, and even last-minute flights. Another possibility is your name is similar to another person’s which appears on watch lists monitored by Homeland Security.
Of course, if you are on a similar watch list yourself, you can expect to see SSSS on your boarding pass. Additionally, flyers that have expired green cards that are in the process of being renewed and are traveling back to the U.S. on a “permit to travel” (I-751) can possibly get flagged. It also is randomly generated as an ‘added measure of security;’ just to keep travelers on their toes?
How SSSS Affects Your Check-In
If you are selected for additional screening, you will not be able to print your boarding pass at home (or hotel, if traveling) nor access your mobile boarding pass on your smart device (tablet or phone.) Although it is not always the case that these circumstances mean you have been selected as an SSSS candidate; just be aware that it is a possibility. In those cases, make sure you get to the airport earlier to resolve any issues with getting your boarding pass. Usually, my biggest concern is to ensure that my boarding pass states “DOCS OK.” That indicates that my passport and any necessary visas are properly entered into my flight record. When there is an issue, the same symptoms can appear; unable to print boarding pass or use airport self check-in kiosks.
My Recent Experience with Secondary Screening
In my most recent case, while returning from Madrid, I was unable to get a boarding pass at the airport’s self-service kiosk after scanning my passport. After proceeding to the airline’s ticket counter and checking in personally, I was handed my boarding printed pass; of course with the SSSS clearly visible!
In my case, I was instructed to proceed through the normal security lines as usual but then report to my gate as soon as possible for ‘additional security precautions.’ Often in the United States once you present your boarding pass to the TSA agent working the podium (where you present your boarding pass and matching ID) you will then be told you are required to undergo additional screening.
Secondary Screening Procedures
Procedures vary, especially when out of the country. You should expect to be asked to enter the full body scanner as well as through the less-complicated metal detector arch. In almost every situation, you will be asked to undergo a full body patdown by the TSA agent and a full inspection of everything you have brought in your carry-on bags. As a word of precaution; a TSA agent is entitled to ask that you turn on each electronic device to make sure it truly is what it seems to be. So make sure your devices are charged enough to accomplish that task.
In Madrid, after I reported to my gate and showed my boarding pass with the SSSS clearly displayed I was told to report to the end of the terminal where these secondary screenings were being conducted. The agents had taken over an entire gate area and set up an ad hoc inspection station. People were instructed to line up in single file and then we were separated into one of two lines (randomly selected?)
After handing my boarding pass over to the agent I was then told to take my possessions to a specific table for inspection. There were about two dozen such tables with perhaps six agents working these. In my cases, the agent spoke very little but asked to see virtually every item in my laptop bag plus my carry-on suitcase. He did ask a few times as to what a specific item was or its purpose.
Once that inspection was completed I was directed to a third agent who had a list of questions prepared. These were the usual standard questions like what was the purpose of my trip. He also asked where did I stay, what did I see and what was my favorite sight in the city. Perhaps as a way to keep you off guard, I was asked where I visited around the same time last year. Odd, but I passed it off as one of those random questions to see if you are genuine traveler.
The whole process took about 20 minutes and that seems pretty standard as long as things go smoothly.
Back to the Gate and Boarding? Hopefully
If everything goes well, the TSA agent will fill out a form on your inspection and then stamp your boarding pass to indicate you have completed the Secondary Security Screening. With that stamp, you are cleared to board the flight. Ensure that your boarding pass is stamped by the agent before you leave the secondary screening area. As you attempt to board you flight and the gate agent scans your boarding pass it will alarm once again. At that point they will check to make sure the TSA (or security screening, in my case) is stamped on your boarding pass. If your boarding pass does not have it then they will have to call the TSA to the gate.
What Can You Do If You Are Targeted for SSSS
If a passenger feels they were unfairly targeted, they can file a complaint directly with The Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS-TRIP). I would not suggest doing this if you get an SSSS just once. You might consider this if you get two or more of these stamps in a short period of time; you may be on a watch list, although perhaps erroneously. Again, it could be that your name is similar to another individual who is on a watch list for a valid reason; getting your name disassociated would be a good thing for future travels.
Remedies or Potential Future Solution
Another option would be to apply for a Redress Number. Once approved and you receive your Redress Number you can have that number added within your frequent flyer account so it will be noted on your future flights.
Global Entry and TSA PreCheck may not prevent that SSSS from appearing on your boarding pass; although it should make it a rarity.
If you are interested in getting Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, you might want to consider a credit card which offers a credit for the fee associated with the two programs.
Which Credit Cards Offer Global Entry or TSA PreCheck Benefits?
- The Business Platinum Card from American Express
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
- Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card
- The Platinum Card from American Express
- SunTrust Travel Rewards Credit Card
- U.S. Bank FlexPerks Gold American Express Card
Normally, you can get this benefit every four years, just in time to renew your Global Entry membership or six months before you can renew your TSA Precheck membership. However, some credit cards offer the fee rebate every five years. Make sure you check the details with each card.
It’s important to remember that most people selected to receive the SSSS are for valid reasons, but of course things can happen and there are random selections. I would not be too concerned if it only happens once. Keep a positive attitude and understand this system is designed to protect; but mistakes can happen with any system and I have listed a couple of remedies.
Have You Received an SSSS on Your Boarding Pass? Domestic or International? What Was Your Experience?