Seven Secrets Behind TSA Airport Checkpoints

Airport security might seem quirky to some; Rick Seaney reveals TSA secrets.

March 30, 2010, 8:07 AM

Oct. 13, 2010 — -- What's the best thing about flying today? And the worst thing? Some people will give you the same answer to both questions: airport security.

We know why it's the worst; the inconvenience and additional time it takes at the airport. Before 9/11, some business fliers made a game out of "how close can I cut it?" -- arriving at the gate with literally just seconds to spare.

Only a fool would do that now.

As for the best part? Some people tell me the answer to that is airport security, too because they feel a little safer.

Not everyone. A quick perusal of some of the scorching epithets left on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) blog clearly indicates that. Talk about flaming comments.

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I think it's a tribute to the TSA's efforts at transparency that they allow everyone to see statements slamming the agency's supposed treatment of passengers ("Like moronic garbage"); its honesty ("TSA's policy is to lie to passengers"); and even its mission ("An abysmal failure"). By the way, I don't have to tell you that people who aren't happy are usually the only ones who bother to comment, right?

But no matter what you think of airport security or its methods, the TSA is in there trying. I recently had a long chat with TSA spokesman Nico Melendez at Los Angeles International Airport and he told me, "We're constantly testing things at our laboratory to make sure that we have the cutting edge tools in our airport to thwart any threat that's out there."

He also told me a few things I didn't know or I'd forgotten. Maybe these will surprise you too.

#1: TSA Officers Screw-up When They Go Through Security, Too

Melendez said he's a pretty savvy traveler, but then, you'd expect a TSA bigwig would be; and yet…"I went to a couple checkpoints and I forgot a couple of things," he said. "Sometimes, you just forget." You do indeed. And unless you want that $40 bottle of Pureology shampoo to end up in a TSA dumpster, pour it into a 3.4 ounce bottle.

TSA Security Checkpoint Guide

#2: Blame Slow Lines at Least Partly on Non-Readers and Airlines

We've all seen them: the signs scattered along the security lines, stating "Take off your shoes!" and "Remove laptops from cases!" (if your laptop is in non-TSA approved bag) and the ever-popular "No liquids greater than 3 ounces!" (though strictly speaking, you are actually allowed 3.4 ounces 100ml).

So there are all these signs, and yet when a lot of passengers get to the tubs and conveyor belts, they act as though shoe removal is a bizarre new trick that's being played on them. "People don't read the signs," says Melendez. But then, as shown in #1, he apparently doesn't always read them either. Okay, I admit, I've goofed here too.

What else slows down the line? It began with the perfect storm of 2008: that's when airlines started charging a fee for the first checked bag, just as the TSA introduced the liquid ban. As more and more fliers began using carry-ons to save a buck, they were getting confused over the "legality" of their water bottles. Confusion equals delays.

Why is this still happening? A lot of people don't fly much, and people forget.

#3: Yes, the TSA Does Staff Checkpoints According to Airline Schedules

The security line you're in is taking forever. Movement is at a pace that makes a snail look like Secretariat. So why can't the TSA staff this line with more officers, maybe by actually working with the airlines to figure out when there will be heavy traffic?

They do.

The TSA's Melendez cites LAX as a prime example. "We know that the international terminal is going to be incredibly busy late in the day because of all the flights going to Asia and Europe," he said. "So we know that we need our people there then, but we don't need them at 12 noon."

Now whether you believe they have enough staff at these busy times is another debate.

#4: All Bags are Screened Now

The TSA is adamant on this point: "We screen 100 percent of the bags," Melendez said.

#5: Yes, You Can Bring Handcuffs on Board Your Plane

Yes, the one-and-only Lady Gaga brought handcuffs through security at LAX last month. Why? I haven't a clue (but if she'd care to explain, I'm all ears). In any event, they are not a banned item. Says the TSA blog, "You can't do any real damage with a pair of handcuffs and if you really wanted to tie someone's hands behind their back, there are many other ways you could do it." Uh, okay.

#6: The Security Checkpoint Isn't the End of Security

Once you get your shoes back on, there are at least four more layers of security. One is random checks at the gate area. Yes, you could be pulled aside, asked to open your purse, or more. "We've never claimed to be 100 percent at the security check," Melendez said. "We just never have. I mean, things get through."

Plus, there are air marshals, though not on every flight, explosives-sniffing dogs, and, in some cockpits, armed pilots who have received training from the TSA.

#7: "Secure Flight" Requirements Go into Effect Nov. 1

Did you know the TSA requires that airlines have your date of birth, your gender, and your name "as it appears on your government ID" in airline reservation systems starting Nov. 1?

Maybe you know this, but are you aware that a lot of airlines want this information a few days before your departure date, or you may not fly? If you'll be traveling soon, check with your airline and make sure this info is there. Don't risk missing your flight.

Some of you may be wondering why I haven't even mentioned the TSA's biggest controversy: those body imaging scanner machines, which may be at or coming to an airport near you.

I'll bring you more on that shortly...

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website,, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.

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