Navigating TSA Checkpoints: Getting Through Security Stress Free for Business Travel

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Travel tips from an interview with professional keynote speaker Garrison Wynn

Linda Singerle: For infrequent travelers, it seems every TSA experience is different. What are the latest changes to the security process, and which of those changes are most likely to slow passengers down?

Garrison Wynn: Procedures at airport security checkpoints seem to have changed dramatically in the past four years. But they’ve also changed a lot in just the last year and a half or two years. A few years ago they were routinely strip-searching Grandma and very concerned about fingernail clippers as a weapon. Now it’s all about x-rays and the evils of possessing more than three ounces of toothpaste! You’ll fare much better if you’re up on the latest procedures, so ask a friend who has traveled recently what the experience was like.

In general, in every city that I know of except for two in Texas, you show your boarding pass and your driver’s license once as you enter the security process but you don’t need to show it again as you walk through the x-ray machine or metal detector. San Antonio and Houston are the only cities I know of where you have to show those documents again. So it’s true that everything is big in Texas, including the long line created by slowing down even the experienced travelers. Once you show your license and boarding pass, you can usually put them away, except for in those two cities.

In many airports, the TSA officers ask you two questions: 1. What’s your destination, and 2. what’s your name? If you can’t answer those two questions, you’ve got a problem – which I think is pretty fair. I’ve seen people struggle with those two questions before. If you don’t know where you’re going or don’t even know how to pronounce your own name, then you’re either a terrorist or a New York City cab driver! Make sure you are paying attention so when it’s your turn, you can prove yourself worthy of air travel.

LS: I’ve seen “20/20″ – I know the cleanest bathroom stall is actually the one nearest the entrance because it’s the one everyone passes by, assuming it’s the most heavily used. So is there a TSA station that’s typically faster than others – say, the last one in the terminal, maybe?

GW: Well, I’m sure that varies by airport and by the number of lanes open at the different stations. However, in many cities, at each checkpoint, you’ll find designated lanes for different types of travelers, such as individual travelers, and families or groups traveling together. Some of those lanes are definitely slower. Avoid the line with the family of five still talking about Disney World and wearing matching shirts. They are not in a hurry and they have stuff in their carry-on luggage that they’ve never seen before. Also, if you see three people studying the same luggage x-ray screen, it means you have a new TSA employee hoping to find a bomb on his first day.

Often there is a reserved lane for elite passengers. “Elite” is not an opinion you have of yourself. It’s a status or designation the airlines give you for flying so much. Don’t get in that line if you are not so designated. Officers love sending elite-pretenders to the back of the line.

Similar to the elite travelers’ lane is the lane designated for people traveling first class. Often these lanes are combined. Not only do you move fast in these lanes, but you also dramatically reduce your chances of a baby throwing up on you! It will be printed on your ticket if you’re traveling first class. (If your ticket says 72D, first class you are not.) Some people will tell you that flying first class is a waste of money because it’s not that much better. Let’s get real: it’s a lot better. If you fly every week, you should stick with the same airline so you can get upgrade opportunities… or you could just continue exercising your right to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of flying with infants.

There’s usually also a casual travel lane, which seems to be populated by a lot of people wearing Hawaiian shirts who clearly have no agenda. Often, you’ll find experienced traveler lanes that anyone can get into regardless of how experienced you are. This lane’s your best bet, unless it’s not moving; then just get into the one that is.

LS: So I’ve stashed my boarding pass and I’ve been fast-tracked as elite. Now I have to offload all my stuff and partially disrobe. I’m like a pack mule when I travel. Help me make quick work of those bins.

GW: Those bins that look like they were used by restaurant busboys in the ’70s? You can use as many as you want. The first thing you do is take off your shoes (and belt, if you’re wearing one) and put them in the bin. I do not recommend that you put your shoes on the conveyor belt – they can get scuffed; I’ve actually had a pair of shoes ruined that way. Now, in some smaller airports, they might try to tell you that you need to put the shoes directly on the conveyor. They are wrong! But you do not want to be on the wrong side of an argument with small-market airport security person. It’s like getting pulled over by a small-town cop. They are very friendly but secretly reeeeally want to arrest you!

Kids under 12 usually don’t need to take their shoes off these days. But that could vary from one airport to another. For adults, slip-on shoes are great. You don’t want to be untying and tying your laces in that line. Women, if you don’t like walking barefoot in airports, you might want to wear socks, although I’m sure socks and Prada pumps are not going to land you a Vogue photo shoot. Then again, neither is ringworm! If you can pull off socks and Prada pumps, you’re the kind of woman who travels with no stress but can still slap fashion right in the face.

If you have a jacket or coat, that goes in a bin next. Glasses or sunglasses can go on top of it. Next, if you’re traveling with a laptop, it has to come out of its case and go in a bin. However, iPads do not have to be in the bin and neither does your cell phone. Both can stay in your carry-on. Apparently, airport security recognizes an iPad for what it really is – a giant smartphone that you can’t call anybody with!

If you’re a woman carrying a purse, put it in the bin. (If you are a man with a purse, please do the same.) Then, just before you step through the x-ray machine that looks like a “Stargate” for government employees, you want to offload whatever is in your pockets into an outer pocket of your carry-on. Then load the carry-on onto the conveyor. In some airports, the officers will insist that you watch your stuff go through the conveyor before you materialize on the other side. In other airports, they insist you go through immediately, abandoning all emotional attachment to your possessions. I suggest you keep an eye on your luggage and keep your expensive watch, pearls and rings on. Never put really valuable or easily stolen items in the bins.

In some airports, you’ll just walk through the metal detector. But if you’re sent through the x-ray machine, you’ll be instructed to put your feet in the designated spots and put your hands in the air. Basically you’re doing the hokey pokey in there while someone scans for sinister stuff like knives, shanks, razors, and herniated disks. These days it almost seems that ensuring that your skeleton is in order is more important than detecting weapons, for some strange reason. I guess if you’re Wolverine from X-Men, you’re definitely busted.

Kidding aside, every single thing must be emptied from your pockets… and I don’t recommend you put all that stuff in a bin if you can help it. Put it in your carry-on bag. If you’re a man, you don’t want to get separated from your wallet. If you’re European, you probably won’t even give up your wallet without a fight.

LS: It’s all those things your mom warned you to never take off your person, right? Then when you scramble to recover it all on the other side, it seems like nothing ends up where it’s supposed to be.

GW: You want to minimize all the activity when you’re taking stuff out of your pockets and when you lay your purse in a bin, because that’s when you’ll lose stuff – when you’ve got too much going on. Men, take your wallet and everything from your pockets and put it all in your carry-on and retrieve it as soon as you’re through. Don’t wait until you get everything else back. You and your wallet and your driver’s license cannot be separated. Wherever you go, if you do not have your driver’s license, you cannot get back. There are people trapped in many countries (and several trailer parks in Florida) because they handed someone their driver’s license or passport.

LS: So would you give this all to me again in short order?

GW: Step 1: Take your shoes and belt off and put them in a bin. Step 2: Take off your jacket and glasses or sunglasses and put them in a bin. Step 3: Pull your laptop out of its case and place it in a bin. Step 4: Empty your pockets and put the items in your travel bag; then place that bag on the conveyor belt. Women can put these items in their carry-on or in their purse. Step 5 (for women): Send your purse through. Last step for everyone: Go through the scanner yourself and start reclaiming your stuff, starting with your purse or wallet.

I am always surprised to see people at the gate trying to board a plane wearing a giant sombrero with “Jeff” embroidered across it, carrying three newspapers and toting a laptop, and yet they’re unable to locate their ID! Under no circumstances can you fly without a photo ID, unless you are under 15 years old (which of course makes zero sense because you can’t prove that without any identification).

LS: Have you got any advice on liquids? Do they have to come out of your carry-on and go in a bin?

GW: If you have to travel with liquids, take transparent, quart-size bags with you. Make sure your liquids are in 3-ounce quantities or less. It’s best to pack the stuff in the quart-size bag and then just pull the bag out and place it in the bin as you go through security. Of course, liquids are not a problem if you check your luggage. Oddly enough, the luggage you check is only randomly inspected, but your carry-on luggage is always checked. Inspected or not, it is perfectly OK to take 10 quarts of vintage wolf milk in your checked bag, but 4 ounces of holy water in a carry-on is viewed as a mortal sin. However, with a doctor’s note, you can take liquids over 3 ounces. I can tell you from experience that nothing humbles a jet-setting businessman like showing his doctor’s note to a 23-year-old woman with a badge.

LS: Some TSA officers lighten the mood and some almost seem sour. Does it help to engage them in conversation, or is that just asking to be singled out for the patdown?

GW: Lower your expectations of how security people conduct themselves. Their job is not to entertain us or make our travel go smoothly. Their job is to catch people going through security who are breaking the rules. Make sure you do things right. They have a lot of people walking through metal detectors wearing heavy chain links and a whole bunch of metal and with pockets full of change. That’s why these officers act the way they do and say the things they say. After a while I’m sure it gets old when the 3,000th person asks, “Will this x-ray machine erase all the data on my laptop?”

Don’t expect them to be great or polite, but don’t be surprised if they are. They might be very polite. I have noticed that the smaller the city, the weirder the security. You’ll notice in a really small city they might have more people manning the security gate than travelers going through the gate. They’ll also have outdated ideas; they’ll be behind the times and might not be up on the latest rules.

As for lightening the mood by engaging the TSA officers, I don’t see anything wrong with it as long as you do not get in the way of their job. Just steer clear of any mention of “bomb” in your conversation – even jokingly – or you may find yourself detained for an undetermined amount if time (not to mention you could be the lucky recipient of a $50,000 fine). Be very careful; jokes about terrorism or explosives could make your trip short and your stay long.

Read the first article in Garrison Wynn’s travel series: Strategies for Hassle Free Business Travel

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