If you are a frequent traveler the process of going through security screening at the airport has probably become fairly routine. But if you are one of the lucky (sarcasm) travelers who find SSSS printed on their boarding pass, the predictable process can become anything but ordinary. And if you are, as I was, blissfully unfamiliar with this designation and the process that follows it can become a nightmare.
But there’s a good chance you already know this because if you are reading this it’s likely you were stunned when a flight attended or some other official said, “You’ve been selected for secondary security screening” and asked you to step away from the other passengers waiting to board.
This article will familiarize you with what the letters SSSS on a passenger’s boarding pass mean, how you may know before arriving at the airport that you could see the dreaded SSSS on your ticket, what you can expect if 4Ss appear on your boarding card, and what your recourse is so you can avoid being singled out for future trips.
What it means if SSSS is printed on your boarding pass
If you find your boarding pass has SSSS printed in the upper left corner of your ticket it means you have been “randomly” chosen for Secondary Security Screening Selection. This isn’t the arbitrary selection that you may have experienced in the past at the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security line prior to entering the terminal. Most travelers, even those with TSA Precheck have experienced this extra bit of security where you need to go undergo a full-body scan rather than simply passing through the metal detector.
SSSS, sometimes referred to as a “quad” is an additional airport security measure taken with high-risk passengers as determined by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This assignment means you will undergo extra screening at the boarding gate. While you are more likely to be tagged with the dreaded 4Ss during international travel and when entering the United States, it can happen on domestic (US) flights as well.
TSA Precheck does not guarantee you will not be flagged for additional security screening. Nor does Global Entry.
Here’s my gripe about that. If I’ve spent the extra money for TSA Precheck and gone through the screening process which includes being fingerprinted, it seems that DHS should have enough background to have denied me this privilege if I’m not a good candidate and not have taken my money. (Rant over.)
However, the letter you receive with your Known Traveler Number (KTN aka TSA Precheck) states that it can be revoked for any number of reasons.
How will I know if I’m a Secondary Security Screening Selectee?
You won’t necessarily know in advance particularly if you are unfamiliar with the label. But there are a few things to look for that might give you an early warning before and soon after arriving at the airport.
You may not be able to check-in online
If you continually receive an error message when trying to check in online, this may be the first indication that you have been designated a selectee. But there are a number of other reasons this could happen. If this happens it’s a good idea to arrive at the airport early to allow for additional body scans including a trip through the full-body scanner.
Both my husband and I were unable to check in for our flights out of Paris yet only I had the SSSS code. We assumed the system was down or something minor was preventing us from completing the task. This seemed especially likely since our tickets were booked separately, on different receipts. This makes clear there are other issues that could prevent you from completing the online check-in process
On domestic flights, this may be slightly different. Rather than getting a general error message when doing your online check-in, you may be instructed to check in at the ticketing desk. But don’t expect the ticketing agent to tell you that you are on the SSSS list.
You may have trouble checking in using a kiosk at the airport
If you are like me and find you are unable to check in online you will likely head to the kiosk to complete the task. But when I scanned my passport, a screen came up informing me I needed assistance from an American Airlines representative. Once I found one, she came to my kiosk and swiped her badge, and entered a code. No problem. I was able to proceed from there.
Once we checked in and printed our boarding passes, we moved on to the counter and checked our bags. Then onward to security. I had no issues at security other than the usual activation of the scanner because of my hip replacement. Throughout the process, no one mentioned anything about the SSSS designation on my boarding pass.
What to Look for on Your Boarding Pass
Once you have your boarding pass in hand, if you are observant, you will know you have been selected as you will see SSSS printed in bold letters in the upper left corner and lower right corners of your ticket.
While it may seem like “SSSS” screaming out like a flashing neon sign might be hard to miss, they are actually fairly easy to overlook particularly if you are traveling internationally or do not have TSA Precheck.
On domestic flights, if you have TSA clearance the first thing you probably do is confirm that “TSA Precheck” has been printed on your ticket. But on international flights, there’s no reason to review this. So, regardless of where your travels take you, always be sure to closely review your boarding pass.
Why you might have been given the SSSS designation
It’s hard to know specifically why I or anyone else gets selected. Though I was told this was a “random screening,” based on what I have read, it may not be as random as the airlines say. There are a number of reasons it could happen including being put on a watch list.
But it is more likely that your name has been mismatched with a name similar to someone on the No-Fly List. In my case, this seems likely since I was flying from Paris and I have a ridiculously French name. My name is also hyphenated which frequently causes issues.
Other possible reasons include open-ended or one-way flights. Again, I could have fallen into this category as we had flown into London and were departing from France.
Last-minute flights, unusual travel patterns, and travel to a destination that the US government may consider a high-risk country could raise red flags. Again, this may have led to me being singled out as I had recently made a number of trips to Mexico and I’ve also had visits to the Middle East, including Egypt and Turkey.
What to expect during the SSSS screening process
From what I have read and from my own experience it seems that the process differs a bit between international travel and domestic (US) travel. I will tell you about my personal experience traveling from Paris to the US. What I’ve written about what you can expect on a domestic flight is based on research.
On Domestic Flights
It seems that on domestic flights, the entire process of secondary screening will occur at the TSA checkpoint rather than at the boarding gate. When you check in with the TSA agent you may hear him or her tell their colleague that they have a “quad.” This indicates to the coworker that you are on the selectee list and require additional scrutiny.
Rather than simply passing through the metal detector you will be instructed to go through the full-body scanner. Additionally, you will likely get a pat-down from a TSA agent of your same gender.
Finally, you will be asked to remove everything from your carry-on bags. You will then be instructed to power up all your electronics. The officer will take what looks a bit like an alcohol pad and wipe down all your components and your shoes. The swab has a chemical that reacts if it comes in contact with explosive residue.
Once you have made it over these hurdles you will be allowed to move on to your departure gate.
During International Travel
The process I underwent in Paris was a bit different from the process I just laid out for Domestic flights. By the time I knew that I had been singled out for the Secondary Security Screening Selection I was already at my departure gate. I had undergone all the preliminary security screenings including having had my carry-on x-rayed and passing through the metal detectors.
While I waited to board my flight, I heard my name called over the intercom with the instructions to see an agent at the departure gate.
When I arrived at the desk the gate agent looked at my boarding pass and told me, “You’ve been randomly selected for additional screening. Please follow me.” She then escorted me away from my husband with no other explanation, to a holding area away from the waiting area at the gate. Here, the representative puts me in the queue and tells me to wait until I am called.
There were makeshift stations with security personnel. At those stations, they had passengers removing all their electronics from their carry-on bags as well as removing shoes and belts. Like on domestic flights, the officer swabs these items to check for explosive residue.
In Paris, I did not see anyone undergo additional scrutiny such as an extra pat-down or further questioning but I suppose that happens if there is a reason for suspicion.
Once the security officer completes the process you are instructed to put your belongings back in your bag and board the plane. You will not be permitted to return to the departure gate to rejoin your companion(s).
This can be a bit disconcerting. I wasn’t sure what my husband had been told. If anything. I wondered if he would know to board the plane. Your party will be advised of what is happening and instructed to board when it is time.
All this may seem obvious or trivial but at the moment, I can assure you nothing seems standard. I admit this might be a byproduct of being a female traveler.
Is Secondary Security Screening Selection random?
As for the randomness of the selection, if it were truly random it would be a one-time thing or at least quite rare, just like when you are singled out during routine TSA screenings. But, apparently, the boarding pass SSSS designation can follow you from one trip to another. For this reason, it is recommended that on future flights you allow extra time at the airport.
Is SSSS Permanent? And, how to get it removed?
The answer to this isn’t straightforward. But if you believe that you have been assigned to the list in error, the good news is, you can dispute it following your trip. But the first time it happens you will need to go through the process and dispute it when you arrive at your next destination.
At your first opportunity, head to the Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) website. Here you can file a dispute. It’s a relatively simple form that asks you to supply some documentation, including a copy of your boarding pass (if you have it) and a copy of your passport or other government-issued picture identification.
Once you have submitted the documents for your case to be reviewed and have received a redress number, you wait for a response. With any luck, it’s no big deal and they remove it. Case closed. However, you may never know why you were branded with the designation.
What to expect from the Redress process
The Redress process is less than efficient and I can only imagine that since COVID it has only gotten worse. On the website, you can check the status of your submission. However, in my case, the online system told me that they needed further documentation which I had already submitted. I uploaded the documents again but continued to see the same message. What I am saying is I’m not sure how successful you will be in checking the status of your redress.
After a couple more weeks with no updates from the Department of Homeland Security, I emailed them. This wasn’t particularly helpful as they didn’t respond for several months. This came as no surprise but I figured it was worth a shot.
When I finally heard from DHS they informed me they had received my redress application and documentation. I was assured my application would be processed in the order received.
Getting an answer to your Redress
Roughly 7 months later I received a “case closed” email. Keep in mind I went through this process before the pandemic. I have no idea what you can expect now in terms of timing.
Here are the main points of the correspondence I received.
“DHS TRIP can neither confirm nor deny any information about you which may be within federal watchlists or reveal any law enforcement sensitive information. We have found that about 2% of the DHS TRIP complainants actually have some connection to the Terrorist Watchlist. Complaints most often arise either because the traveler’s name and personal information are similar to the name and personal information of another person (sic) or because the traveler has been delayed in travel for reasons unrelated to such data, such as by random screening.”
The email goes on to give these tips for future travel:
“1. When traveling by air to or within the United States, DHS recommends that you provide your redress control number (located at the top of this letter) when making your reservations. Providing this information will help prevent misidentifications from occurring during security checks against government records and other information. In most online reservation systems, your redress control number may be entered at the same time you enter your full name and date of birth.
2. When entering the United States from abroad, no additional action is required. Where appropriate, as a result of the redress process, DHS employs a procedure to correct the information used to process travelers at the ports of entry that reduces the chance of misidentifications occurring.”
And finally, they say, “Despite these positive efforts, we cannot ensure your travel will be delay-free.”
Will the SSSS code be on your boarding pass for future travel?
Once again, it’s hard to know whether this will be a reoccurring issue. Some people have reported having been singled out multiple times for this procedure. In fact, in writing this it occurred to me that I may have had this happen once domestically as well as the international incident (yes, that’s a bit of a funny).
I wish I had better answers here. But I think much of this varies on a case-by-case basis.