This week’s edition of the Reader Mailbag is related to airport security.

About once a week, I’ll dip into the mailbag to answer questions about accessible travel from readers just like you. If you have a question you’d like answered, send an e-mail to

This week’s question comes from Carter of Pittsburgh, PA. He asked:

I have TSA PreCheck and never have to get a pat down. Last week, I was told I had to have a pat down because I had SSSS on my boarding pass. What does that mean? What can I do to fix the problem?

Ah, the dreaded ‘SSSS’ printed on a boarding pass. The acronym stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection and guarantees that you will receive extra attention at the security checkpoint.

A full body pat down, piece-by-piece inspection of the contents of your carry-on and perhaps even an explosive trace detection (ETD) swab of your toothbrush can be expected.

‘SSSS’ appears at random and is based on an algorithm that identifies potentially high-risk travelers for special attention. TSA says the following about the program, known as Secure Flight:

Secure Flight is capable of identifying passengers flying internationally for enhanced screening measures based on risk-based, intelligence-driven information, as well as randomly selecting a percentage of passengers for additional screening to build unpredictability into the matching process.

Chances are, you were selected at random for no other reason than to “build unpredictability” into the system. TSA won’t reveal exactly which factors are considered by the algorithm, but here are a few things that might increase your chances of being selected:

  • Last-minute flight booking
  • Travel to/from/through a high-risk country
  • International one-way tickets
  • Passenger’s name is similar to one on a terror watchlist or no-fly list
  • Irregular travel pattern

I have received ‘SSSS’ on quite a few occasions, but always while traveling internationally (and usually when returning to the United States). I travel on one-way tickets and to new destinations all the time, so it isn’t a surprise when I am selected. “It happens,” I say.

My most recent ‘SSSS’ experience took place last year at YUL airport in Montreal, Canada. This security screening was similar to what a wheelchair user would expect in the U.S.—pat down of the body and wheelchair, ETD swab of hands and wheelchair and searching inside the carry-on bag. The process added about 10 minutes to the entire process.

Any traveler can be selected for a secondary screening, even if they have TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. Selection is random and, in most cases, rare. If however you find that you have been repeatedly selected for ‘SSSS’ over a short period of time, TSA recommends that you apply for a redress number. By applying for redress, the Department of Homeland Security will review your case and remove any inaccurate information from your Secure Flight file that might cause you to be unfairly flagged for additional screening.

If you travel often, ‘SSSS’ is bound to strike eventually. Take it in stride and enjoy your trip!

Have you ever been selected for additional screening?
Let me know in the comments below!

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