The perils of accidentally skipping TSA secondary screening

This is the story of how I managed to wander around the secure part of an airport for several hours and missed my flight because TSA failed to perform the secondary security screening that was clearly marked on my ticket.

I arrived at Sea-Tac airport over two hours early for a 1 AM flight because I had to check several bags. (Also Sea-Tac offers free wireless.) I checked my bags and got through TSA security with the normal amount of annoyance. I wandered over to my gate and sat and played on the internet for the next hour or so, waiting for boarding to start.

When my zone was finally called I wandered up and gave the lady at the gate my boarding pass, which she scanned. But instead of the normal happy beep, the machine gave me an unhappy beep and a “Random Security Screening” message. I was asked to step aside as the gate lady looked over my pass and typed stuff into a terminal. At this point I’m thinking “great they have to check my ID again for some random pointless security check.” The ticket agent asked for my ID and wandered over to the main desk. She started conferring with the older gate attendant, both of whom seemed a bit confused.

Finally the gate attendant called me over and explained that my ticket is marked with “SSSS” which stands for “Secondary Security Screening Selection”, meaning TSA needs to do a special screening because I fit a profile. I had purchased a one way ticket less than two weeks in advance of the flight. The fact that I got flagged wasn’t that surprising. The younger attendant then told me that I couldn’t board the plane because I hadn’t gone through this secondary screening and that I needed to go back to TSA right now and get screened. At this point zone 3 is already boarding the plane and I’m at the S terminal, so there is at least a 4-5 minute train ride between me and the main terminal. The older lady tells me that because it’s nearing 1 AM all but one of the TSA stations have been closed, and tells me how to get to the only open TSA station. At this point I’m thinking “You have got to be kidding!” and ask if they really think I can get to TSA and back before the plane leaves. Both women looked really sorry for me and said that they will hold the plane as long as possible, but that I had better hurry.

So I, a known potential security risk who has already managed to sneak past TSA, am now turned loose in a virtually empty airport with nothing but verbal orders to go find TSA to get screened. Thankfully I’m not a terrorist, and just really really wanted to make my flight, so I started running back to the main gate. A run, train ride and another run later I managed to make it to the only open TSA screening point after approximately ten minutes.

It took a bit to flag down a TSA officer since I’ve never tried to approach TSA screening from the wrong side before and I didn’t have the time to insert myself into the normal line. Apparently no one had told them I was coming because they were surprised to see me. They were also surprised that I had managed to get through the line the first time and tried to decipher the signature on my ticket without success. They also asked me when I had come through and what the screener had looked like.

The TSA people were as nice as TSA people can be while still doing a thorough job. A female officer patted me down and two other officers went through my bags and scanned my larger bag four times. They found and emptied my full water bottle (I’d originally brought an empty one through and filled it on the secure side of the checkpoint). They also found a cute pen with a vial of glitter filled liquid at the top which they decided to let me keep. When satisfied they signed my ticket with a sharpie and sent me back to my gate.

Another run, train ride and run later I, unsurprisingly, discovered that my plane had left without me. The ladies at the gate re-booked me for a 6am flight. They kept the main part of my original ticket that contained the signature of the screener that had let me through. They let me keep the ticket stub which also contained a TSA signature.

After five hours of trying to sleep upright in a airport chair I tried to board my new airplane. This time round the lady taking tickets wasn’t scanning them. Instead she was tearing off the stubs and handing them to the lady next to her who was typing them in. The first gate attendant happily tore off my new ticket stub completely missing the SSSS marked on it and handed it to the second gate attendant next to her for typing in. At this point I really didn’t want to get pulled back off the plane when they discovered the “Random Security Check” message so I intervened and told the first gate attendant that she might have a problem when the other attendant typed it in. I showed the first attendant the signature from TSA. She wanted to keep the ticket but I wouldn’t let her because I might need it for my connecting flight. She told me this wouldn’t be a problem because once I got on my first flight they didn’t check it on the next one. I wasn’t willing to take the risk with a 40min layover and insisted on keeping it which she finally let me do.

The lady taking tickets was ultimately correct, the next flight did not ask for proof of extra screening.

Several interesting points from this experience:

  • Kudos to Delta personnel for identifying the lack of screening before I got on the plane and correctly not letting me board. As much as I’m irritated, they did do the correct thing.
  • Human screeners are not perfect and will not spot everything they should. The TSA security screener who completely missed this, created a potentially dangerous situation AND caused me to miss my flight. I was told by both TSA officers and the gate personnel that seeing SSSS is now a rare occurrence which likely why it was missed. This is likely a true observation and an argument for why having human-only initial screeners isn’t the best security option.
  • I don’t think there is a protocol for dealing with this type of situation at the gate. The gate attendants I worked with seemed confused and other than sending me back to TSA they didn’t have a good plan. No call was made to TSA to make sure I showed up. TSA didn’t call them back to say I had actually been screened. I could have happily gone out of sight and scribbled on my ticket with a sharpie and they would have likely let me on the plane.
  • TSA also seemed unsure how to deal with the situation. They simply processed me as if I had been flagged initially and while doing so they were asking each other about things like if they should empty my water bottle or not since I had filled it inside of the security.
  • Accountability didn’t seem to be maintained. I’ve always wondered about the signatures the people who check IDs put on tickets. I now know that there is no clear tie between that signature and the signer. Neither the gate personnel nor the TSA officers knew how to map the signature back to the person who signed it. Though the gate personnel did retain the signature so they could try.