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“SSSS” on Your Boarding Pass: A Traveler’s Dread

Have you ever received a boarding pass with the letters “SSSS” printed on the lower corner?  Those troublesome letters mean you are a chosen one; chosen for “Secondary Security Screening Selection“.  How exciting.  If you travel a lot, eventually it will be your turn.


It’s rather remarkable that with all my bizarre travel routings, this was the first time I encountered the dreaded letters.  As I mentioned on Facebook, my return to the United States from Athens wasn’t exactly smooth.  Four flights, 35+ hours and the associated delirium are a pain that I’ve learned to accept, but this trip was different.




Security in Athens

In Athens, I was questioned while waiting in line to check my bag. The American Airlines agent wanted to know where I was going, how long I’d been in Greece, where I went and why.  This caught me off-guard as I’ve never been questioned in the check-in line before.  Then, check-in went normally, except she told me she could not give me my boarding pass for my last flight from San Francisco and I would have to get it once I arrived.  Leaving the counter, I only glanced at my boarding pass to check the gate number, still unaware of my fate.


I went through the usual security lines and thought I was home-free.  Au contraire, mon frère.


The gate was cordoned off with rope with an agent checking boarding passes before allowing entry. After examining my boarding pass, she directed me to another roped-off area where I was told to wait for further screening.  My bag was placed on a table and an agent went through its entire contents (glad I didn’t bother folding anything), opening EVERY pocket, zipper, container, and pouch.  Finally, after removing my shoes, I received a manual pat-down and visual inspection of my person and then was free to go.


Security in the United States

Oddly, arriving in Philadelphia and going through security again, I had no problems and no “SSSS” on my boarding pass.


But in San Francisco, after printing out my boarding pass at a kiosk, I once again needed to pass through security for my final flight.  My boarding pass had the dreaded “SSSS”, but I was still blissfully ignorant of its meaning.  When I reached the officer checking IDs, he scanned my boarding pass, a red light flashed and he told me to step aside and wait for an “officer who needed to talk to me“.  I don’t care how innocent I am, these are scary words.  As I stood there, heart beating fast, I considered all the bad things I’d done in my life wondering whether today was the day I would finally be apprehended for stealing that bubble gum when I was six.  But truthfully, jokes aside, it was unnerving.




After five minutes, an officer came, and told me she would have to do a very careful screening and would be opening up a body screener and x-ray machine just for me!  Clearly, my lucky day.  My bags were x-rayed.  I was asked to turn on all electronics in my possession.  I went through the body scanner, which was followed by a pat-down that was more intimate than I enjoyed.  My bags were again searched and every pocket, zipper, container, and pouch opened.  My bags were “swabbed” in every crevice for explosive material.  During the process, three agents were involved.


While waiting for the swabbing to be completed I chatted with another TSA agent who wanted tips about traveling to Greece.  Feeling like I had an ally, I asked: “Why is this happening?”  “We can’t tell you,” he said, “sometimes it’s random or maybe you’re on a list.  We don’t know.”


A LIST?  A list?  Uh oh.  This could really put a damper on my lifestyle.


After twenty minutes, I made it through and again I thought I was home free.  Again, Au contraire, mon frère.


Boarding the airplane, my boarding pass was scanned and I saw the now familiar red light and heard the beep.  The agent looked at a computer screen with a blazing red pop-up that read something similar to: “Do not board without verifying ID”.  My ID was verified and I boarded, with a paranoid feeling that I was in deep trouble but with no idea why.  


After arriving at my destination, I quickly searched for the cause of my troubles. That’s when I learned about “SSSS” and now I share what I learned with future travelers.


What is “the list”?

Actually, “the list” is a bit of a misnomer.  There are many lists compiled by many agencies and funneled into a Terrorist Watch List which includes a “No Fly” list which bars individuals from boarding a plane or the “Selectee” list which means the individual should get more screening at the airports, hence the SSSS.


Who gets chosen for SSSS?

The actual criteria for selection are an even bigger secret than the recipe for Coca-Cola.  There is no way to know.  Many people who get selected have the following in common:

  • Traveling on a one-way ticket (yup)
  • Ticket purchased last minute (nope)
  • Traveling solo (yup)
  • Travelers who’ve been to Turkey (I’ve transited through Istanbul many times in the last couple years (en route to Greece) but never left the airport.
  • Strange travel routings (I admit that 2017’s Los Angeles to Japan to Thailand to Qatar (airport only) to Croatia to Turkey (airport only) to Greece does indeed look weird.  Traveling with frequent flyer miles sometimes requires weird routings.)
  • Purchasing tickets with cash. (nope)
  • Flying from countries considered “high risk” (nope)


What can be done if you’re denied boarding or repeatedly get selected for SSSS?

It’s not uncommon for innocent people to have the same name or birth date as people on “the list” which can cause them problems.  If you are repeatedly having issues, the quickest way to try and get this resolved is to apply for a Redress Number with the Department of Homeland Security.  The form is here.  I will do this if I continue to have problems.


How to Prepare Yourself for SSSS

  • Cooperate and be courteous to the agents as your selection is not their personal choice or determination.
  • Always have your electronics charged so they can be turned on.
  • Always get to the airport and go through security early so you can deal with situations like this without the added streSSSS of potentially missing a flight.
  • Avoid “too tight” connection times between flights.  Personally, I don’t book connections with less than two hours between flights.


Wishing you safe and easy travels!


  1. I disagree about being cooperative and courteous – these goons are literally sticking their finger to you and only because 9/11 was used to empower this kind of unwarranted interrogation of free citizens. This is not a free society and the argument that it is better to cooperate would sound the same at the train stations in 19040s Warsaw. And as for ‘they’re just doing their job’ well I’m sorry, they should get a better jobs where they don’t harass innocent people without reason.

    If one goon tells 10 people to kneel and they refuse or make it so difficult as to not be worth it, pretty soon that goon knows better than to ask. Goon being your government. Every time they push, and you keep stepping back, they just keep pushing.

    • I hear you. For clarity, I should have said: “If you want to actually board your flight, cooperate and be courteous…”

  2. Thank you so much! I await a similar fate.

    • You’re welcome, Kim. I do hope this information helps others be prepared.

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