Travel 101 : The Airport Security Checkpoint Experience

Currently the single most complained about aspect of airline travel isn’t the cramped seats, the checked baggage fees or crying babies … it is the airport experience before a flight. Specifically, passengers complain about the airport security process.


When following up on emails from those complaining about their airport security experience, it is often revealed that those writing in are infrequent fliers, often with limited experiences with airport security.   Simply knowing the process and knowing what to expect can diminish much of the angst associated with the airport security process, so this is intended to help infrequent flyers be better prepared for what to expect.


Flying With Fish has previously detailed the airport security process, but there have been some minor changes in the past two years since the last post was written.   The minor changes to airport security are not in place at all airports and it is important to remember that each airport is different.  Smaller airports, such as my home airport, tiny Tweed New Haven Regional Airport (HVN) is a very different experience than security at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), but the process is essentially the same, in the United States and around the world.


Rather than blather on … I present Travel 101 : The Airport Security & TSA Checkpoint Experience



1) Queuing Up — Queuing Up is simple. This is the start of the airport security process where passengers line up to enter the security screening checkpoint.


Remember that you can only enter the security screening checkpoint queue once you have your boarding pass in hand. (On more than one occasion I have witnessed people making it all the way through a security line only to sent back to the ticking areas because they didn’t have their boarding pass in hand).


3) The Barker — ‘The Barker’ is not an official title, but more a descriptive name of a security officer or private security contractor that addresses the queue of passengers by ‘barking’ that you should have your boarding pass and valid photo identification out and available for inspection, that your laptop should be out of your bag for x-ray inspection and that 3-1-1- baggies should be out and be placed in a bin for x-ray. “The Barker” may also split a single line into two lines, ask to see you boarding pass and at times just intimidate inexperienced travelers.


Barkers are not at every airport or every checkpoint. Barkers are usually found in larger airports or certain checkpoints at peak travel times of the day. Keep in mind despite “The Barker’s” directions, solid-state storage netbooks and iPads remain in your bag during X-ray and laptops may stay inside TSA approved laptop bags as well.  3-1-1 bags are 1-quart sized bags that contain items of 3oz or less (or 100ml which is equal to 3.4oz)



3) Travel Document Checker (TCD) — This is usually the first security officer travelers directly interact with.  The TCD is at the ‘entrance’ to the actual screening process and is there to inspect traveler’s identification and travel documents and ensure the name on the passenger’s boarding pass matches that of their valid photo identification.



4) The Long Table — The start of the passenger screening process starts at a long table with plastic bins. When you arrive at the long table you remove your shoes (the TSA requires that shoes be removed, many airports around the world do not require you to remove your shoes); remove your laptop (if required); and remove your 3-1-1 bag. As you place your laptop in a bin, and your shoes and jacket in another bin, you should start making sure you have no metal on you, this means place your coins, keys, mobile phone, watch, wallet, etc in a secure pocket, or inside one of your bags. By placing your metal objects and valuables in a pocket or bag, rather than into a bin, you reducing the risk of someone stealing your property from security.


5) The X-Ray Scanner — At the end of the ‘Long Table’ is the conveyor belt leading to the X-Ray Scanner, this is where you place your bags and bins into the X-Ray scanner. When you place your item into the x-ray scanner remember two things … (1) Make sure you keep your boarding pass out in your hand, not in the bags you just placed in the scanner (2) make sure you witness your bags entering the scanner before you proceed to the next step. Whenever possible, from that moment on, do not take your eyes off items exiting the x-ray scanner.  You should


(Passenger Personal Screening Has Multiple Variants, listed as 7a-1, 7a-2, 7b-1, 7b-2)


7a-1) The Walk Through Metal Detector — Until recently, the only passenger screening only consisted of a walk through metal detector. The process for passing through the metal detector has not changed since its introduction.  After you’ve placed your bags and plastic bins and into the x-ray scanner (boarding pass is in your hand) line up in front of the metal detector until a security officer motions for you to step forward and walk through the metal detector at a normal pace. Before passing through the metal detector, give yourself one last quick pat down to make you haven’t missed any metal items in your pockets. If you have any loose metal items declare them before you go through the metal detector.


7a-2) The Wand Metal Detector Wand (if you set off the alarm) – ‘The Wand’ is a simple hand held metal detector used by security officers to screen passengers who have set off the metal detector multiple times. You are usually hold your arms out and are ‘traced’ with the wand to find the source of the metal. Along with the ‘wanding’ passengers are usually asked to sit down and their feet are inspected as well.


7b-1) The Advanced Imaging Technology Scanner (AIT) – Increasingly in many airports I the United States and around the world AIT scanners are being installed to scan passengers. Like the walk through metal detector, the process is simple for passengers.  After you’ve placed your items into the x-ray scanner wait for a security officer to motion for you to enter the scanner. When being scanned by an AIT scanner all your pockets should be empty, unlike a metal detector, an AIT scanner sees everything, not just metal.  Enter the scanner, turn to the side the security officer instructs you to, hands over your head and be on your way.


7b-2) Pat Down (if you set off the alarm) – Should your AIT scan set off an alarm for something on your person, something under your clothes, or an anomaly, you will be subject to a physical pat down. Pat downs around the world vary. In the US, a TSA ‘enhanced pat down’ is rigorous and some travelers find it invasive. But if you’re prepared and make sure there is nothing in your pockets or under your clothing you have a high likelihood that you will not set off any AIT scanner alarm and you’ll avoid being patted down.


8 ) The Rollout — ‘The Roll-Out’ is where you retrieve your carry on bags and bins after they’ve rolled out of the x-ray scanner. When picking up your bags and bins make sure that all your items have rolled out of the x-ray scanner before you leave the roll out area.


When you have all your items and have moved to the table or chairs near the x-ray scanner for you to ‘get yourself back together,’ be methodical about your possessions. Belt, wallet, watch, keys, laptop, mobile phone etc, make sure you have everything and everything is where it is supposed to be.  Moving to the adjacent chairs or table in the post-screening area allows you to get yourself back together in a slow paced environment, where you’re not being jostled and distracted.


9) The Bag Check (not everyone gets a bag check) – A security officer shouting “Bag Check” are two of the most dreaded words for travelers passing through security, but really its nothing to be worried about.


A bag check is generally simple and painless, you collect all your items from the x-ray roll out and a security officer carries the bag in question to a testing area in your full view. If an x-ray screener thought they saw an item a security officer will look through your bag to identify the object in question, or they’ll simply swab the bag for explosives.  When they are finished, repack your bag (unless they found explosives in your bag … in which case you’ve got bigger issues than repacking your bag), zip it up and you’re done.


Should your bag be selected for a bag check it is important to never touch your bag while the security officer is manually screening your bag, until you’re informed that it is OK to touch the bag.



10) Have A Good Flight — This is just what it sounds like … make sure you have all of your possessions and head off into the terminal to have a good flight.


Now that you know what the airport passenger screening process entails from start to finish, relax.  The process can be tedious but if you know what to expect and you’re prepared for each step, start to finish, you can spend your time relaxing by people watching rather than worrying.


Happy Flying!




  1. Fish, great article for the less frequent travelers. One thing I would change is the following:
    “As you place your laptop in a bin, and your shoes and jacket in another bin, you should start making sure you have no metal on you, this means place your coins, keys, mobile phone, watch, wallet, etc in a secure pocket, or inside one of your bags.”

    My advice would be to have as much of this as possible already out of your pockets before you even get in line, as people tend to get backed up at the tables while emptying their lives from their pockets. I put everything except my boarding pass and wallet (for ID) in my bag ahead of time, and then slide the wallet into my carry on once I no longer need the ID.

  2. A very good, very descriptive post.

    Just a note that, as of 2 days ago, shoes were required to be put ON the belt (not IN a bin) at 2 airports I was at. (And at MCO, the TSA agent operating the screening machine was unnecessarily pissy about it). Also children under 12 (for now) are not required to remove their shoes (at MCO anyway)

    The point I am making is that you may get different instructions from the ‘barker’. Just impassively follow TSA personnel directions until you get reassembled and well out of earshot of them before you roll your eyes and proceed to your gate.

  3. I toss everything but my ID in my bag when I am in the queue waiting for the ticket/ID checker. Also, when at PHX (twice at different checkpoints in different terminals), they TSA guy at the back scatter scanner said no paper was allowed on my person. Since that I have just put my ticket in my bag once it is checked at the podium.

  4. Hi Fish,

    Just one quick question; what about a money belt? If off on an extended holiday it could contain several thousand pounds (I live in the UK :-)), so during the X-Ray bit and possibly the Body Scanner would you put that in your carry on case or leave it on your body, but tell them it is there?

    Due to ill health I haven’t traveled outside the UK for well over 10 years, but I am hoping to travel in the not too distant future which is why I am trying to pin down all the small details 🙂

    Your articles are a real boon in clearing up any questions, so thank you for that 🙂

    God Bless

    Glenn (UK)

  5. Thanks for a great guide to help speed up some of the people in front of us frequent travelers.

    I’m stuck on one question. Why do TSA agents still initial boarding passes?

    I understood this when I had to show my boarding pass prior to passing through the x-ray (it was dumb them but there was a hint of logic to it). It makes no sense now. No one will ever look for that initial.

    If the answer is “because we’ve always done it that way”, it’s these kinds of things that contribute to the poor image of TSA.


  6. Mark,

    Boarding passes are initialed by TSA TCDs to show that the boarding pass has been seen and validated. A while back I had double printed my boarding pass at home, something I always do in case I lose one, when I got to the gate I handed the gate agent the boarding pass the TCD had not initialed and they wanted to have me sent back to the checkpoint to be screened. When I reached into my bag and pulled out the initialed boarding pass I was allowed to board without any problems.

    The initialing has always been an issue for me, what if I slipped past security and initialed my own boarding pass? Who would know? If ‘initialing’ was real security, TSA TCDs would use a time/date stamp on each boarding pass with a specific ink.

    Happy Flying!


  7. Glenn,

    Your money belt may be OK for the metal detector depending on the zipper. For an AIT scanner it needs come off, as does your regular belt.

    Happy Flying … and welcome back to traveling!


  8. Kris,

    At PHL I’ve been told to hold my boarding pass in my hand over my head, as I pass through. At BDL I’ve been told to place my boarding pass into my bag before entering an AIT. Consistence, as always, can be problematic.

    Happy Flying!


  9. Mari,

    Kids leaving shoes on at MCO was part of the TSA pilot problem to reduce the screening of kids, it began in August.

    As for shoes in the bin or out of the bin varies from airport to airport. Generally shoes go in the bin … until they don’t :0)

    Happy Flying!


  10. I think they should do shoes like they do liquids and gels, etc. Shoes smaller than a certain size are not dangerous, where shoes larger than a certain size are.

    That would make total sense to me just like the 3.4 oz thing.

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