There’s a whole suite of ways to speed up your wait in the airport security line: download TSA’s app for gate-by-gate wait updates, sign up for pre-check status to keep hold of your shoes (and your dignity) in line, plan ahead by keeping metal belts and jewelry in your luggage before the checkpoint, etc., etc. But there’s one surefire way you can tell if you’re in for an extra-long wait—and you can find out as soon as you receive your boarding pass.
Ready? Boarding pass in hand, look for these four letters: SSSS.
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The quadruple S (abbreviated by some airlines as simply *S*) stands for Secondary Security Screening Selectee, and means exactly what is sounds like: Selected passengers can expect additional TSA screening after the initial metal detector rigmarole. According to a leaked CIA assessment of the program, this could involve any number of additional methods including pat-downs, intrusive bag checks, and further questioning.
Why might you get selected for secondary screening? The good news is, you probably won’t unless you’re on a government watch list—per the CIA, the system is partially a time-stalling measure that allows TSA to further verify a suspect passenger’s credentials. However, there are a few other red flags that could signal SSSS scrutiny: If you booked a one-way reservation, paid for your ticket in cash, or bought a ticket for a same-day flight, you are more likely to raise some TSA eyebrows, travel experts say.
Of course, finding an SSSS on your ticket does not necessarily mean your name is on a no-fly list. According to one former TSA worker, “SSSS stamps… could show up on passengers’ boarding passes for any number of reasons, often reasons we would never know.” Part of this could be your chosen airport trying to meet a quota—especially if you’re traveling internationally. As the CIA points out, “The Department of Homeland Security estimates that about 12 percent of U.S.-bound passengers are randomly selected for additional screening at overseas airports.”
If you do get randomly selected, budget extra time for security, avoid these common travel mistakes, and try to be nice to your overworked, underpaid TSA frisker. And if you happen to be a deep-cover CIA agent, you probably don’t need to be reminded what the bureau advises: “The most effective prevention of secondary is to have simple and plausible answers to the two most frequently asked questions, ‘Why are you here,’ and ‘Where are you staying.’” Safe travels, whoever you really are.