An airport security screening is a way for transportation security officers (TSOs) to search you and your carry-on baggage for potentially dangerous or harmful materials. Authority for these security screenings is given to the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001. President George W. Bush signed this law into effect in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. The TSA has developed a process through which to conduct security screenings to maximize safety and minimize passenger delay.

What Are the Steps in a Security Screening?

There are three basic steps in an airport security screening:

X-Ray Machine

All carry-on baggage and personal items must be placed on a belt to go through an X-Ray machine. Any item that is too big to fit though the machine must be checked and will not be permitted as a carry-on item. Laptop computers and video cameras must be taken out of their cases and placed in bins before going through the X-Ray machine. All coats, jackets, and blazers must be removed and placed in bins to be examined in the X-Ray machine. The TSA does not require that you remove your shoes for X-Ray screening; however TSOs will encourage you to remove them as most types of shoes require additional screening. Generally all shoes require additional screening with the exceptions of beach style flip-flops and thin soled sandals. 

Walk-Through Metal Detector

All passengers must walk through a metal detector. Any metal object on your person or clothing may set off the metal detector. You are encouraged to place any metal objects in a bin to go through the X-Ray machine in order to avoid setting off the metal detector.  These items include cell phones, keys, or loose change.  If you set off the metal detector, you will undergo additional screening.

Additional Screening

You will be subjected to additional levels of screening if you set off the metal detector or if you are chosen for additional screening. It is important to note that the FAA does not allow for additional screening to be done on the basis of race or national origin. See Airport Security Measures: Privacy and Profiling. If you are selected for additional screening, you will be directed from the metal detector to a screening station. At this time you should notify the screener of any personal needs you may have due to a medical, religious, or cultural concern.  In all but rare instances, a person of the same gender should conduct the additional screening. You may request that the additional screening be done in private. A TSO will brief you on the next steps of the screening. These steps may include:

Hand-Wand Inspection

You will be required to stand with your feet apart and your arms out as the TSO passes a metal detecting wand over your body in an attempt to find what set off the metal detector.  You may be asked to remove body piercing, in private, or to unbuckle your belt.  Additionally, you may be required to remove your shoes if you have not already done so.  The TSA recommends that individuals with pacemakers or other medical devices likely to set off a metal detector bring the proper identification verifying the condition.

Carry-On Baggage

Your bag may be opened and searched on a table in your presence. You should not try to help the TSO search your bag and you should not attempt to retrieve any item before being given permission by the officer. Your baggage may also be sent through an Explosive Trace Detection machine.

Pat-Down Search

A pat-down search is when a TSO uses his or her hands to feel for objects on your person or clothing. All pat-downs should be done by an officer of the same gender as the passenger. If this is not possible, supplemental procedures may be used to ensure that the screening is done in an appropriate manner. Before any such search begins, the officer is required to explain their actions. A passenger may request that a pat-down be done in private. New guidelines have expanded what may be done in a pat-down search.  A TSO may feel non-sensitive areas with the front of their hands. These areas include the entire arm, from shoulder to wrist, and the legs, from mid-thigh to ankle. When searching sensitive areas such as the upper torso or groin, the TSO must use the back of their hand.

Must I Consent to Airport Security Screenings?

No.  You do not ever have to consent to an airport security screening.  However, if you refuse screening at any point during the screening process, you will not be allowed beyond the passenger screening checkpoint and will not be able to fly. If you want to be able to board your plane and travel to your destination, you must consent to any and all security screenings.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you feel that you were unfairly targeted for additional security screenings, inappropriately touched during a pat-down search, improperly detained, or unlawfully searched during an airport security screening, you should consult an attorney. They will be able to help you determine if your rights were violated and advise you on what courses of action to take.