The Dreaded SSSS On Your Boarding Pass

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12/04/2008 – The Dreaded SSSS On Your Boarding Pass

Many of you have experienced the joy of “Secondary Security Screening Selection” (SSSS), and for those who have not experienced it , you probably know someone who has, or have seen it while waiting in line for security.

How do you know if you have been “selected” for secondary screening? In the lower right corner of your boarding pass you will see four letters “SSSS,” which stands for “Secondary Security Screening Selection.” Contrary to popular belief, passengers who receive SSSS selection are not chosen by the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA), they are actually selected by the airlines they are flying on.

A common misconception is that SSSS only exists in the United States. You can get SSSS on your boarding pass outside of the United States. I know quite a few people who have had SSSS come up on their boarding pass outside of the US. In fact I was handed a boarding pass with SSSS this morning for my flight from Seoul/Incheon (ICN) to Tokyo/Narita (NRT).

Another very popular myth is that passengers in premium cabins are not subject to SSSS. This is entirely false. Another common myth is that an airlines, or airline alliance, “elite” frequent flier is not subject to the SSSS. This is also incorrect.

To demonstrate that these myths are just myths, there is a photograph of my boarding pass from this morning at the end of this post. This boarding pass has all the myths debunked on one sheet of paper.

If you look at my boarding pass you will see that it is issued at Incheon/Seoul (South Korea). You will also see that the boarding pass clearly states “United First” in the upper right of the card, a “First Class” label is on the the right hand side. Lastly you’ll notice under my name is printed “BD*G.” BD*G = British Midland International (BMI) – Star Gold. “Star Gold” is the highest level of elite status recognized between the Star Alliance member airlines.

How can you avoid getting the “SSSS” on your boarding pass? You cannot. There are no published guidelines for what triggers this. The only know reasons that can potentially trigger this appearing on your boarding pass are your travel patterns. I know why I think my boarding pass has SSSS on it. My travel itinerary over the past few days is unusual. I have made complete stops in my itinerary in four countries, on three continents, in three 24 hour periods, without ever overnighting in any one place. Having traveled in the United States, Germany, Hong Kong and South Korea (I am now writing this entry sitting in the airport in Tokyo/Narita, Japan) would naturally set of red flags in the airline’s computer system.

When you are selected the computer has to base it’s SSSS selection on travel patterns, such as last minute one-way bookings, as the computer cannot factor in a background check at the time the boarding pass is issued. I have read some very amusing posts online about how to avoid SSSS, such as asking for a new seat. This does not work. A favourite way to avoid SSSS is to pay for an upgrade. Not only does this not remove the SSSS, but you have to consider if it is even worth it to pay for an upgrade to save 4 minutes at the security check point.

Secondary screening is not that bad. It is inconvenient, but it takes a few minutes,that’s all.

Does SSSS actually provide us with any additional security? No not really. If you are planning on doing some harm to the worth and you see SSSS on your boarding card chances are you’ll walk out of the airport, or go to your car and ditch whatever you were going to smuggle onto the plane. It is simply a show of force.

So, if you get SSSS on your boarding pass be polite. Stay calm and relaxed. Empty your pockets it will go by quickly. I have seen quite a few folks start yelling at gate agents or security agents. That gets you no where except possibly being denied boarding and certainly a longer, slower search.

Happy Flying!

–Click Photo To Enlarge It–


  1. […] I have been in contact with a television news show (network TV, not trash TV) that is seeking to speak with PHL flyers that have experienced a problem with the TSA.    Please have had a real problem with the TSA, not a complaint that the TSA wouldn’t let you pass through security with a 20oz bottle of soda, or that they pulled you over for secondary screening when your boarding pass was stamped with SSSS. […]


  1. According to the security staff at the Continental gates of IAH, anytime USAir screws up (which they do just about daily at IAH) and they put you on a another carrier, they tag you with SSSS. Makes for a long line at the Continental security gates….

  2. Jack

    The reason many last minute rebooked seats end up with SSSS is because these are seen by the computer as a “last minute & one way” ticket. The computer system has no idea who paid for the seat. Most reissued boarding passes are issued in the “air side” of the airport so the passengers, even with SSSS, should not have to be rescreened.

    US Airways only flies a total of 11 inbound (and return) flights per day into IAH, from three of their four hubs (no flights arrive in from LAS). These flights are 1 per day from PHL, 5 from CLT, 5 from PHX. On a really bad day I would guess that more that a dozen US Airways are reissued booked on CO flights. It would be hard for passengers to “misconnect” at IAH, as the airport is not a Star Alliance hub airport. So let’s say that 12 pax is 24 pax on a very heavy day. 24 people does not affect the security times at any medium regional airport, much less a large international airport that is a hub for a major mainline airline.

  3. Fish, I had to leave WPPI a bit early on a standby reservation and ended up in the SSSS line. Trouble is, it directed us to the puffer and took 45 extra minutes. I came within five minutes of missing my flight!

    Gina Preston

  4. Gina

    You’ll be happy to know that the TSA is no longer purchasing any “puffer” machines. They have proven quite unreliable. Of course the ones in service will remain in service at this time, despite the TSA admitting that they are ineffective.

    A secondary screening should take you less than 10 minutes. My secondary screening in Incheon, South Korea, where they unloaded my entire backpack, two cameras, lenses, batteries, laptop, light stand, Pocket Wizard remote triggers, even two pairs of dirty socks and two pairs of dirty underwear, etc etc etc etc took me 15 minutes. I was trying to explain the Pocket Wizard triggers to a security officer who barely spoke any English and his supervisor who spoke no English. I ended up convincing them to let me demonstrate what they did (somehow) and then I was OK.

    The SSSS is here to stay, although it does not make us any more secure. It is a fact of travel, domestic and international……and yes, I have heard of people who have missed flights due to SSSS. I have come very close to missing my flights with SSSS as well.

  5. I wonder if you could use that to jump the rest of the security line?

    I remember getting off a flight from Heathrow to JFK once. There was a huge backlog clearing customs, and when I was asked if I was carrying any plants, animals, et c., I said “yes.” I jumped the 2-hour wait, surrendered the orange I kept from my flight and walked away in 60 seconds.

    You should have seen the glares. Try it sometime.

  6. I was returning home to OAK from PHX from a long weekend, with my family of 5. I received the SSSS boarding pass. I believe it is generated randomly by the computer system in addition to all the other red flags and don’t think you can get around it. The screening process was not that bad but I was able to hand my Camera bag to my husband before we went through security.

  7. My last flight home from LHR I was tagged SSSS and went through security expecting to get shoved off elsewhere, and apparently they forgot about me or I looked just too darn innocent. I was even sent around the taking off my shoes bit, my guess, it was the fact that I travel with a cane.

  8. Just wanted to share my experience, in the past 4 years I must have made over 30 trips to or from usa, I have been subject to ssss on every single trip. At first it would upset me to see ssss on my boarding pass, but lately I have come to accept it and in a way it kind of works to my advantage, because I get to skip all the long lines at most airports and the screening takes less then 5 mins. 4 cheers for “SSSS”

    I travel first or business class 95% of the time. Still have to go through ssss.

  9. I was travelling with a tour group SFO-INC-HAN-SGN-SRP-INC-SFO. On the INC-SFO leg, my boarding pass had the dreaded SSSS As far as I coul tell, the only effect was that they had some difficulty printing my boarding pass in Siem Reap, but they eventually succeeded before we left Cambodia. For whatever reasn, there was no SSSS on SRP-INC leg, or any other flight in this itinierary. Nobody else in the tour group was honored with the SSSS on any of their boarding passes. I did not detect any additional scrutiny at either SRP or INC. Basically, it seemd like most airport secutiry measure: all for show with no useful purpose and providing no improvement in security.

  10. i realy hate SSSS becouse it wasting u time i was delay 1Hr becouse they asking me Q and i miss my flt that day i was waiting onther flyt 8 HRS

  11. My 3 year old got selected as ssss. I’m not sure how swabbing a 3 year old made anyone safer. Only made her cry and made for a long flight for everyone on the plane.

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