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Understanding Airport Screening

Increased security measures at all commercial airports means an increase in the time it takes for travelers to get to their planes. We can, however, take steps to make the process go as smoothly and quickly as possible. We can make changes in how we dress for travel, to speed the process through the metal detector. We can follow the guidelines for what we pack and how we pack it, to make the inspection easier for the screeners.

Many of these guidelines come directly from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Created in November 2001 when the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (P.L. 107-71) was signed into law, TSA's job is to ensure the safe transport of people through the nation's transportation systems. Responsibilities include passenger screening, cargo screening, the Federal Air Marshal program, intelligence monitoring of terrorist threats, as well as other security activities related to aviation and other modes of commercial transportation.

Read through the following sections to see how you can help facilitate the screening process on your next trip.

Before Leaving Home

Know what questions to ask and what documents to gather so that you may get through security screening quickly.

Permitted & Prohibited Items

Review the chart from TSA that explains which items are and are not allowed in checked or carry-on baggage.

Check-In Procedures

Now that all checked baggage is being screened, the process for checking in has changed at many airports. Read TSA's information on the new processes for checked bag screening.

Tips for Packing Checked Baggage

If you are planning to check your baggage with the airline, read through these suggestions to help facilitate the screening process.

Tips for Packing Carry-on Baggage

Carry-on baggage is screened at the security checkpoint. Read these suggestions for packing your carry-on bags.

What to Wear for Airline Travel

Passengers are screened at the security checkpoint for prohibited items. Get through the metal detector as quickly as possible by following these tips.

Special Needs

Those with questions regarding how religious and cultural needs, or medical needs will be handled should review these guidelines about the screening process.

Children

Screeners are trained to handle children with respect at the security checkpoints, but there are things you can do to make the experience as pleasant as possible for your kids.

Animals

Click here for information on how pets and service animals are processed through the security checkpoint.

Contact TSA

If you have questions while at the airport, you can ask to speak to the TSA screening supervisor. Their Consumer Response Center is available by calling 1-866-289-9673 Monday-Friday 8am-6pm. Their email is telltsa@tsa.dot.gov.

Before Leaving Home

Suggested arrival times differ for each airport. Your travel agent can tell you how far in advance you should arrive at the airport, depending on whether you are taking an international or domestic flight. If you are not planning to check any baggage, and won't be standing in the line for the ticket counter, you can cut that figure by 15-20 minutes if you must. But always err on the side of caution and get there earlier if possible.

Ask how and when checked baggage will be inspected. Can you check baggage curbside? Or must you go to the ticket counter?  Check with your airline or travel agent. See Check-In Procedures for more information on this subject.

Specific parking lots may be closed for security reasons. Call the airport ahead of time to ask if there are any closed lots so you won't be surprised on the day of the trip.

There are many documents you need to organize before heading on a trip (insurance, will, etc.). The following list specifies documents that will help you get through the security checkpoint.

  • Make sure you (and anyone traveling with you) have your boarding pass, ticket, or ticket confirmation.
  • Make sure you (and anyone over 18 traveling with you) have your government-issued photo ID.
  • If you have a medical implant that would set off the metal detector, or have other special medical needs that require special consideration during a search (such as a pacemaker), get documentation from your doctor about the condition. Although this documentation is not required, it can help the screener understand the situation. Those persons with a pacemaker who should not go through the metal detector can get a Pacemaker ID card.

To read an article specifically about organizing documents for a trip, click here.

To return to the beginning of this article, click here

Check-In Procedures

Baggage Security Checkpoints

As of January 1, 2003, TSA began screening 100% of checked baggage at all 429 commercial airports across the United States.  You will encounter one of the processes described below at the airport.  Please be aware that you will not be able to access your bags after they are screened no matter which process you encounter. Therefore, you should remove everything that you want to take on the plane with you before you hand over your checked bag for screening.

Checked Bag Screening Processes

No change -- You check in at the ticket counter or with the skycaps as you have in the past. The new screening equipment will be out of your view and the screening of your checked baggage will occur behind the scenes.

Ticket counter first -- You will still check-in at the ticket counter or with the skycap as you have in the past, but you will next proceed to a new baggage screening area nearby.  At most airports, you will next take your checked bag to the checked baggage screening area, where it will be screened there and afterwards delivered directly to your airline for loading.  At some airports, someone will take your checked baggage from you at the ticket counter and deliver it to the screening area.  In a growing number of airports, you will have the option to drop off your bags at the screening area and proceed directly to your gate without waiting for your bags to be screened.

Baggage screening first -- You will go first to the checked baggage screening area in the airport lobby. After baggage screening, the screener will direct you to the ticket counter and an authorized person will bring your bag from the screening area to the ticket counter for you to complete the check-in process.

Please watch for signs and other instructions that will direct you to the correct line. Unless you see signs directing you otherwise, go to the ticket counter to check-in with your airline.  

Several methods are being used to screen 100% of checked baggage. The most common methods that you will encounter involve electronic screening, either by an Electronic Detection System (EDS) or Electronic Trace Detection (ETD) machine. The EDS machines are the large machines that can be over 20 feet long and weigh up three tons. Your baggage will be loaded on a conveyor belt of the EDS machine by a screener for screening. If your bag requires further inspection, it may be brought to an ETD machine. The ETD machines are much smaller than EDS machines, and are the primary machine used in many airports.  When your bag is screened with an ETD machine, the screener will take a swab of your bag and then place the swab into the ETD machine for analysis.

There are other methods that may be used at airports to ensure that 100% of all bags are screened. Regardless of which system is used, all checked bags are screened before they are loaded onto the plane.

Unlocking Checked Bags

TSA suggests that you help prevent the need to break your locks by keeping your bags unlocked. In some cases, screeners will have to open your baggage as part of the screening process. If your bag is unlocked, then TSA will simply open the bag and screen the bag. However, if the bag is locked and TSA needs to open your bag, then locks may have to be broken. You may keep your bag locked if you choose, but TSA is not liable for damage caused to locked bags that must be opened for security purposes. If you are transporting a firearm, please refer to the section on "Transporting Firearms and Ammunition" later in this article for directions on locking your bag.

If TSA screeners open your bag during the screening procedure, they will close it with a tamper evident seal and place a notice in your bag alerting you to the fact that TSA screeners opened your bag for inspection.

In the near future, TSA will provide seals at the airport for you to use to secure your bags as an alternative to locks. Until that time, you may want to consider purchasing standard "cable ties," which can be found at your local hardware store. The 4 to 5 inch variety cable ties generally work best since they are the easiest to remove at your destination and can be used to close almost every bag with zippers. If TSA needs to inspect your bag, the screeners will cut off the seal and replace it with another seal.

Missing Contents

TSA screeners exercise great care during the screening process to ensure that your contents are returned to your bag every time a bag needs to be opened. TSA will assess, on an individual basis, any loss or damage claims made to TSA. You may call the TSA Consumer Response Center toll-free at 1-866-289-9673 if you have questions.

To return to the beginning of this article, click here.  

Tips for Packing Checked Baggage

Checked baggage is luggage that you check in at curbside, the ticket counter, or a screening station that will not be accessible to you during the flight. Read through this list of suggestions for packing to make luggage screening easier. Details about the screening process for checked baggage are explained in the Check-In Procedures section.

Don't overpack. Items from an overstuffed bag may spill out during an inspection, and will make it more difficult for the handler to close the bag when they've finished.

TSA suggests that you help prevent the need to break your locks by keeping your bags unlocked. In some cases, screeners will have to open your baggage as part of the screening process. If your bag is unlocked, then TSA will simply open the bag and screen the bag.  However, if the bag is locked and TSA needs to open your bag, then locks may have to be broken. (For more details on this topic, read Check-In Procedures.)

Undeveloped film will be damaged if it goes through the checked baggage screening process, even if it is inside a camera. Place all undeveloped film in your carry-on baggage.

Although TSA recommends that you don't place film in lead bags since the bag will have to be hand-inspected, airports in other countries may not perform hand inspections in which case the lead bag may come in handy.

Avoid packing food and drink items in checked baggage.

Don't stack piles of books or documents on top of each other; spread them out within your baggage.

Place ID tags inside and outside your luggage and personal items such as laptops, camera cases, etc.

Don't wrap gifts. They may have to be unwrapped for inspection. Bring along a decorative bag or wrap the gift after you arrive.

If the screener confiscates an item that is prohibited in a carry-on bag, but permitted in a checked bag, do not rely on being able to put that item into your checked baggage. More likely, the screener may allow you to take it to your car, or give you the option of WTAndoning it altogether into the screener's care (that is to say, these items will not be returned to you). Learn the rules for what is and isn't allowed ahead of time to avoid this situation. (See the TSA's list of Permitted and Prohibited Items for details.)

Sports equipment that is deemed potentially dangerous (such as hockey sticks or golf clubs) must be transported in checked baggage. Sharp objects must be securely sheathed/wrapped to prevent injury to baggage handlers.

Check with your airline to see if firearms are permitted in checked baggage. If so, the firearms must be unloaded, packed in a locked hard-sided gun case with you, the passenger, having the only key or combination. Ammunition must be securely packed in fiber, wood or metal boxes, or other packaging specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition. Both firearms and ammunition must be declared to the airline at check-in.

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Tips for Packing Carry-on Baggage

You may carry on one small piece of luggage and one personal item (purse, briefcase, etc.). This rule does not apply to medical supplies, equipment, mobility aids and/or assistance devices by a person with a disability. The carry-on bag must meet your airline's size requirements; otherwise it will have to be checked through to your destination instead of joining you in the plane's cabin.

If you bring a prohibited item to the checkpoint-even accidentally-you may be prosecuted, depending on the situation.

Don't

Contents in a stuffed bag may spill out during an inspection, and make it more difficult for the handler to close the luggage when they're done.

When deciding what personal items to bring in your carry-on, realize that screeners may need to examine these items in view of the public.

Make sure

medications are properly labeled (professionally printed label identifying the medication or a manufacturer's name or pharmaceutical label).

Purchase some clear plastic bags in which you can place items. The screener may then be able to visually inspect the items without actually touching them.

Don't wrap gifts. They may have to be unwrapped for inspection.

Although many sports items such as golf clubs and baseball bats must be placed in checked baggage, other sports equipment, such as balls, may be taken through the security checkpoint in a carry-on bag. However, realize the screener will make the decision about what is a potential danger.

Since undeveloped film will be damaged if it goes through the checked baggage screening process, it should be placed in your carry-on baggage.

If you are going to be traveling through multiple X-ray machines with the same roll of undeveloped film, you may want to request a hand-inspection of your film. Any film may be damaged after 5 times though an X-ray machine since the effect of X-ray screening is cumulative. Always ask for a hand inspection for:

  • Film with an ASA/ISA 800 or higher

  • Highly sensitive X-ray or scientific film

  • Any film that has already gone through a machine several

  • Film that is or will be underexposed

  • Film that you intend to "push process"

  • Sheet file

  • Large format film

  • Medical film

  • Scientific film

  • Motion picture film

  • Professional grade film

The machines used to screen your carry-on baggage will not affect digital camera images or film that has already been processed, slides, photo compact discs, or picture discs.

Although TSA recommends that you don't place film in lead bags since the bag will have to be hand-inspected, airports in other countries may not perform hand inspections in which case the lead bag may come in handy.

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