How to navigate a TSA checkpoint

Love it or hate it, we are stuck with airport security.  The best we can do is to go in prepared and armed with knowledge.  Following is how the typical TSA checkpoint works, and my advice for navigating it with the least amount of hassle.  Recommendations are mine, and will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog.

The first step is research.  If you actively avoid the scanners like I do, you should have an idea of what you’re up against before you get to the airport.  The best website to provide intelligence on the scanners at specific airports is TSA Status.  It’s up-to-date for most airports and gives current information about checkpoint configurations and how often scanners are used.

At the airport, our interaction with the checkpoint starts with the rope lines that lead to the ID check stations. Almost all medium and large airports have multiple entrances. TSA has designated several lanes, including “Family”, “Average Joe” and “Black Diamond Super Traveler”. You may self-select into whichever lane you like. In addition to the TSA’s lanes, there are often separate lanes for airline elite travelers and for cabin crew. The elite lines are usually much shorter than the others, so if you have elite status this may be your best bet.  The TSA’s lines are graphically identified with signs:

















Next up is the ID check station.  This is where a TSA clerk compares your government-issued photo ID to your boarding pass.  I use a Passport Card, as it has the least amount of personally identifying information on it.  Also acceptable are state driver’s licenses, passports and several other less common forms of identification.  The full list can be found at the TSA’s website.

After the ID check you’ll have some choices to make.  If you’re actively looking to avoid the naked scan and groping, this is the point you’d try to choose a line that either doesn’t have a naked scanner or has one that is not in operation.  I recommend scouting this out before you get the ID check station so that you have a strategy ready.  While some airports have very specific lanes and give you little room to maneuver, others are more open and allow you to choose your own security lane after passing the ID check station.  I find that even in airports that have naked scanners in every lane, there are many times when one or two are not operational.  This is an easy way to choose to avoid the scanners; simply choose a lane without a scanner, or with one that is not in operation.  Scanners that are not in use are usually roped off at the entrance, so look this visual clue.  At the checkpoint lanes, here are what your three options look like:

Metal detector








Naked scanners

Millimeter Wave on the left, Backscatter X-Ray on the right


At airports that have naked scanners, choosing a line without one does not guarantee avoidance.  TSA employees have been known to pick people out of “safe” lines and direct them to the scanners.  At this point you have three options:

1. Refuse the scanner (“opt out”) and receive a thorough, genital-touching patdown.  TSA may offer a private screening, but you can decline and have them assault you in full view of other passengers.  I recommend forcing them to perform their gropes in public.

2. Go through the scanner.  Note that about 50 percent of the time people are patted down anyway after the scanner.

3. Tell the TSA (and probably airport police) that you have no intention of being visually strip searched or groped, take your belongings and leave the airport.  This option is complicated and you will likely be threatened with fines by TSA.  Don’t let them bully you.

The important thing to remember is that you have the right to opt out of the scanner every time.  There have been instances of TSA agents telling people the scanner is mandatory.  This is untrue.  If you encounter resistance to your opt out, summon a higher level of authority, possibly including a law enforcement officer (LEO).  Be aware that a screener’s immediate supervisor will almost always defend his fellow TSA employee without giving much thought to what you’re saying, so you may need to escalate beyond a front line supervisor.  Note the number of bars on the TSA employee’s uniform; one bar is the most junior.  Two and three bars indicate more experience and supervisory roles.  Above a “three-striper” you can ask for a Screening Manager, Assistant Federal Security Director (AFSD) or Federal Security Director (FSD).  The FSD is the head of the TSA at his or her airport.  Typically anyone above a Screening Manager will be dressed in a suit instead of a TSA uniform.

Other factors

Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs).  These are agents who have undergone training to detect behavior that may indicate thoughtcrime malintent.  Putting aside the debate about how effective this technique is, I recommend not engaging in conversation with TSA employees.  You are not required to discuss anything with them.  There is a trial program underway at Boston airport where many passengers are being interrogated about their travel plans by BDOs.  It remains unclear what the consequences are for not answering their questions.

Resolution Patdowns.  The “resolution patdown” is performed when the TSA is not able to resolve an “alarm”.  This patdown is even more invasive than the retaliatory patdowns given to those who opt out of the naked scanners.  The agent will use the front of his hands on your genital areas.  TSA will insist that this patdown be done in a private room.  Reports are that they will not perform a resolution patdown in the public screening area.  I do not – under any circumstances – recommend going with the TSA into a private room.

Gate Screenings.  You’re not in the clear once you’ve passed the checkpoint.  TSA sends roving teams around airports to further harass passengers.  If you see a pack of blue shirts hanging around at your departure gate, odds are they are there to paw through your luggage as you board the plane.  They typically push a cart along with them; this is a sure way of identifying a gate grope team.  As far as I know the law is untested in the area of refusing a gate grope.  TSA has authority to conduct an “administrative search” of your belongings and person as as condition of entry to the secure part of an airport.  I would argue that this is a one-off and that gate searches are illegal.  If you take this position be prepared not to fly, and possibly to make legal history.

Threats and intimidation.  TSA likes to bully and intimidate people into doing what it wants them to do.  Common threats include “Do you want to fly today?” and “I will call a law enforcement officer.”  If you are acting reasonably and within your rights, call their bluff.  Many airport law enforcement officers are much more reasonable and rational than TSA, and can help resolve situations.  Dealing with the TSA is challenging, but try to stay calm and level-headed.  This will increase your credibility with the officer.  TSA employees are not law enforcement officers and have no right to detain you.

I’ve tried to make this a comprehensive guide covering most scenarios with the TSA.  If I’ve missed anything please leave a comment and I’ll update the post.

  • Willem

    There’s one glaring problem with this article. Most of it is untrue. Shows ignorance and lack of common sense. Exaggerations and total untruths. Anyone who travels through security checkpoints knows this.

    Ryan Lile Reply:

    This article is years old (I don’t even blog at this site anymore) but feel free to point out what you think is untrue. Most of it still stands, except that there are no more backscatter x-ray scanners deployed and avoiding the scanners by choosing a lane without one is all but impossible now (unless you have PreCheck). Otherwise the information is still solid.

    So let’s hear it, smart guy: exactly what is “exaggerated” or “untrue” other than what I clarified above?

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