Department of Airport Security

Wonder how to work your way through the security gates without a hitch? These tips and tricks will help you forgo the stress of airport security so your arrival is as easy as your departure.

Successful navigation of airport security is all about preparing before you get to the airport.

Wait Times

First, try to get a handle on wait time. With the exception of Hartsfield Atlanta Airport's Trak-a-Line Security Checkpoint Tracking System, there are no real-time sources for this information.

However, the TSA just launched the next best thing, a Web site that posts 28-day historical averages for security checkpoint wait times at every domestic airport. For example, on Tuesday mornings at 6 a.m., LaGuardia concourse C has a nine-minute average wait time and a 17-minute maximum. Two hours later at 8 a.m., you will be zipping through the same line in two or three minutes. On the West Coast, you'll find that at 6 a.m. on Tuesdays, Seattle-Tacoma's concourse C has a sleepy 21-minute average wait time and a 31-minute maximum. Luckily there are plenty of Starbucks and, yes, you can carry your cup through security.

Packing and Dressing for Airport Security

The first step in minimizing check-in hassle is knowing how to pack. Not in terms of cramming as much stuff as possible into a smallish bag, but rather in managing your possessions to best navigate the airport's multiple security checkpoints.

Your goals for packing — and dressing — for airline security are to avoid having your baggage and body searched, as well as to avoid having your possessions confiscated or disturbed.

The Travel Security Administration publishes a list of permitted and prohibited items on its Web site. You can also find an abbreviated list in Appendix A of the Business Travel Almanac.

Common sense would dictate that items such as weapons, explosives, and incendiary devices are prohibited in carry-on luggage. However, there are seemingly harmless item considered by the TSA as "dual use" items — that is, items that could be used as weapons — such as Swiss Army knives, metal scissors, strike-anywhere matches, and straight shaving razors. You can pack these items in your checked baggage, but not in your carry-on.

If you have concerns about an item, your best bet is to place it in your checked baggage or get authorization from the airline. If the item is confiscated at the security checkpoint, you won't get it back — and you could be criminally or civilly prosecuted. Increasingly, airports' Paradies Shops and the TSA are offering shipping services to travelers who may find themselves with a banned item such as a pocket knife. Just step out of line and bring your item to a pre-security store. They will mail your item to you for about $5. You also get a receipt that lets you return to the front of the line.

Tips for Carry-On Baggage

Here are some tips on what you should and shouldn't pack in your carry-on bags:

  • Remove all prohibited items — such as pocket knives, scissors, and tools — from your carry-on baggage.
  • Screen your bags before you travel; you may have forgotten a pocket knife or similar item stuck in the back flap six months ago.
  • Do not carry on wrapped gifts; the security screeners will have to unwrap them to examine them.
  • Bring the right size carry-on bag. The FAA mandates that passengers are restricted to one item of carry-on baggage that does not exceed 10-by-16-by-24 inches (45 linear inches), plus one smaller personal-type item (for example, a purse, briefcase, or laptop computer case). Many airlines add a weight limit of 45 pounds.

Metal Detector Dating Tips

For the most part, items with a small amount of metal — such as rings and bras — will not set off the X-ray machine. However, some machines are more sensitive than others. Be aware that any metal detected at the checkpoint must be identified. If you set off the alarm, you will be required to undergo a secondary screening, including a hand-wanding and pat-down inspection.

The TSA has created the pithy "In-Out-Off" guideline to help you remember some basic tasks:

  • Place all metal items IN your carry-on baggage before you reach the front of the line.
  • Take your computer OUT of its carrying case and place it all by itself in one of the bins provided. Make sure that your batteries are working because you may need to turn it on.
  • Take OFF your outer coat or jacket so that it can go through the X-ray machine. (You do not need to remove your suit jacket, sport coat, or blazer — unless you are asked to do so by one of the passenger screeners.)
Here are some other tips for dealing with airport security:
  • Before you get to the checkpoint, remove all jewelry and metal items from your person and place them in your carry-on bag or in one convenient location on your person. (This includes any body piercings that might trigger the metal detector.) Nothing is more irritating than standing behind someone who is pulling PDAs, keys, change, glasses, and so on out of his coat like rabbits out of a hat.
  • Wear slip-on shoes. It's much easier to deal with slip-ons than tie-ups if you get chosen for a random screening. In addition, some security screeners require you to place your shoes on the checkpoint conveyor belt, so you might as well prepare for it.
  • Choose your shoes carefully. One of the most common ways to trigger the metal detector is to have metal shanks in your shoes. If your loafers are loaded, or you think they might be take them off and put them in the bin on the conveyor belt. Try to avoid wearing work boats and platform shoes as they often require additional screening.
  • If you have a medical implant or similar device, it is likely to set off the alarm on the metal detector — so bring evidence verifying your condition.
  • You can bring food through the checkpoint, but it must be wrapped. Beverages have to be in a sealable/spill-proof paper or polystyrene (styrofoam) container.
  • If you do not take your computer out if its carrying case before sending it through the X-ray machine, it will need to undergo a secondary screening.

If you have a question or complaint about airport security issues, you can contact the TSA's Consumer Response Center at 866-289-9673. And don't forget your boarding pass, ticket or ticket confirmation and a government-issued photo ID to clear security.


Do you have additional airport security tips and techniques to share? Any airport security horror — or hero — stories? Join the discussion.

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