Negotiating US Security- an appeal and a guide

I have just spent three weeks out of the last five in the USA flying 21 times. This is a lot of checkins! Flying can be very frustrating at the best of times but people’s dilly dallying at airport security really raises my impatience levels. If a passenger “wastes” a minute at security, that can be a be an annoyance. If 15 people in a security line all “waste” one minute, this time delay adds up. For some people, this can mean missing a flight!

In the book and movie “Up in the Air”, the main character chose which security line to stand in based on the demographic of the people. For example, families are always going to take longer because kids and their stuff takes more time. I find myself doing the same.

Step One: Present Boarding pass and US Drivers’ license or foreign passport.

It amazes me how many people can stand in a line of people and act surprised when they get to the head of the line and have to produce ID. Last week in Orlando, on reaching the agent, a guy in front of me rummaged through his bag and eventually found a passport wrapped in a sheaf of papers. The agent had to remove the papers, turn the passport around and search for the photo page. I have some agents refuse to do this and wait for the passenger to properly present their ID. Is having the passport open at the photo page with the boarding pass the same way around too much to ask. Likewise with licences. NB Some agent have accepted my Australian drivers; license and some don’t so I no longer try and only use my increasingly battered passport.

Step Two: Waiting in the Security Line

While standing in the line, I remove my belt and put it into my laptop bag, loosen my shoe laces and open the zipper of the bag ready to extract my toiletry bag. Into my laptop case or jacket go my wallet, change, phone and headset. I check my pockets for chewing gum wrappers, paper clips or anything else that may have end up in there. Keys are always in my laptop bag.

Step Three: Bin or bag your liquids

There has been a “liquids rule” in place for many international and all US domestic flights for almost seven years. This rule (called 311 by the TSA) says no liquids, gels or creams are allowed on a plane unless

3: They are stored in a container can be larger than 3.4 ounces (100ml) by volume.
1: the individual containers are in one 1-quart (litre) clear plastic zip-top bag zipped shut
1: the passenger has only one of those bags

Ideally sort this before you get to the airport but the security line is the place to run  through what you have on you and get your plastic bag out and ready. I have witnessed people trying to bring through bottles of Champagne (yes it is a liquid), a rollaway case full of two litre bulk bottles of shampoo, fruit juice bottles, cough medicine, water bottles and a urine sample (don’t ask don’t tell). (Though I have been guilty of carrying through a 220g jar of Vegemite. This is when I found out that Vegetate is considered a liquid/gel). The delay to pull these liquids out will impact you and the passengers behind you

At Buffalo airport three weeks ago, I witnessed a woman tearfully pleading with a security agent to let an entire bag of Kiehl toiletries through. Obviously brand new , I calculated there was $200 worth of expensive face and eye creams, all way over the maximum 3oz 100ml size. The agent explained the woman could check them in (which she said she did not have time to do), give them away to a non passengers or have them thrown away. She chose the latter. Personally, I would have found some lucky woman and thrust the luxury booty at them. Into the garbage bin went a sizeable pay cheque of beautiful skin product.

Step Four: Preparing my Trays

My toiletries, and shoes (some airports ask you to out shoes on conveyor belts directly) go into the first tray with my jacket folded on top of the shoes. Put nothing on top of the toiletries. This can mean a re-check of that tray and/or an agent yelling at you.

Into the second tray goes my laptop in a TSA approved case which means I do not need to take it out of that case. No cords are allowed with it.

Step Five: At the Conveyor Belt

I place my roll away bag on the conveyor belt followed by laptop bag, then comes the tray with laptop and finally my miscellaneous tray. I watch to see that they all have entered the scanner before they go though the x-ray machine. I put my jacket through last because of the aforementioned valuables in it and it means that I am usually through the scanner before it comes out of the scanning machine reducing the chance someone else may grab the jacket.

Step Six: Being Screened

At security, there are generally three types of machines in use now:

1. Airport metal detectors

As you walk through, the machine produces a brief magnetic field which is reflected off the body passing through.  If the decay of the reflected pulse takes more than a few microseconds longer than normal, there is probably a metal object interfering with it.



2. Millimeter wave scanner

In this system, you walk into the machine and then turn right facing a glass wall. Stand with your arms raised over your head, fingers just touching. Spread your legs out so the feet match the image of the two feet displayed on the unit floor. Two antennas rotate around you for a few seconds A millimeter beaming radio frequency waves over the surface of your body using two rotating antennas. The energy reflected back from your body is analysed for anomalies. The waves are supposed to have no negative effect.


3. Backscatter machine

These look like two large blue boxes with a pathway through the middle. Walk in and rotate so you are facing left. Stand with your arms raised over your head, fingers just touching. Spread your legs out so the feet match the image of feet displayed on the unit floor. The machine emits a low intensity X-ray beam over the surface of the body creates 2D image of your body. You are exposed to he same amount of radiation as someone flying for three minutes at normal cruising altitude.There are some who are concerned that these radiation levels could cause cancer


Whatever the machine, speed the process up: have nothing in your pockets ( gum wrappers, condoms coins, notes, balloons or watches – I have seen people pulled aside with these things), watch and be ready to take your turn, wait for instructions from agent and leave the machine when instructed. Want to know which US airport has the newer machines, check this searchable database.

Step Seven: Collecting My stuff

At the other end, my rollaway bag goes on the ground first, laptop bag clips in, laptop case slides in, jacket on and I grab my shoes and toiletries. I can re thread my belt through my trousers away from the check point.

Watching me intently, a woman recently complimented me on how fast I was at getting through security: “you must fly a lot.” Sigh! yes I do!I have private competitions to time how long it takes to get from the door of the airport to the gate or airline lounge. If I can reduce my time in the security line, then I may be helping others to get there after.

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  1. One thing that I found out that doesn’t pass the scanners even though the manufacturer says they do are the Wurkin Stiffs magnetic collar stays. They may fool the metal detector, but not the back scatter or wave scanners. Ask me how I know… 😉 BTW, nice step-by-step for getting through security. Unfortunately it only takes a few to ruin the process for the rest of us.

  2. For me in the past, the most annoying thing to clear out was the change, keys, wallet, phone out of my pants pocket, and my watch and belt.

    Now i put all that stuff into my backpack that has a handy top compartment for easy access and undo my belt in security line. I now try to wear flip flops through the airport and eliminates the time to tie/untie shoe laces. I hate shoe laces btw.

    For most of the travel now, i don’t bring a laptop. It is just way too much trouble taking it out of the laptop bag (dont have one of those TSA approved ones) and putting it back in on the other side. With smartphones, i can survive a few days or a week without my laptop. I would say for vacations, a tablet would suffice.

    Great step by step article on how to get through security. I might need to drill my wife on this and schedule practice sessions before our flights.

  3. The system is the system. I would rather run through like a greyhound than dawdle like a tortoise. Choice is yours.

  4. Yeah -having somewhere to throw all that stuff helps. It speeds things up and means you are less likely to be losing/dropping/fumbling/dropping at security. Buying the laptop approved case is brilliant. I live on my laptop so its a must. Thank you for the compliment.

  5. Yeah. You cannot take those stays through.
    If its one person who slows things down, its annoying. When it is a whole line it is excruciating.

  6. I’m not sure why you are even bothering with this? The people who need to read this are not reading FF blogs anyway and will always be a PITA to deal with, while the rest of us in the know are as frustrated as you!

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