Though ever-increasing security at airports makes sense in the face of terrorist activity worldwide, that doesn’t make the slow processing speeds and long lines at airport security any less frustrating.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is aware that there’s room for improvement, but they’re not in a hurry to make your life easier. “The TSA cares about security,” says Bruce Schneier, security expert and author of Schneier on Security, but “if you want to make security faster, there need to be more lines. They’re just not going to do that.”
To be fair, the TSA has made small steps toward improving the speed of security. They introduced Advanced Technology X-ray scanners at major airports; installed self-select lanes so slow-moving families and expert travelers choose different lanes; they removed bans on frequently confiscated and innocuous items such as nail clippers; they endorsed “checkpoint-friendly” laptop bags. These measures can help most passengers save a few minutes but there’s still a lot more to do. Instead of waiting for a government organization to increase its own efficiency, travelers should concentrate on changing their own habits to speed up the process.
A little common sense and advance planning can shave seconds—possibly minutes—from your trip through security. “I design my life so I don’t beep,” says Schneier. “My life is checkpoint-friendly.” Schneier is an expert traveler who knows the finer details of TSA regulations. But even a quick glance at the TSA’s web site can help the average traveler clear security more quickly, too.
First, there’s the restriction on liquids. Like it or not, as an air passenger, you must be sure “all of your liquids, gels or aerosols fit under quantity measures,” says TSA spokesperson Sterling Payne. Recent arrests have proved the wisdom of these checks, but it’s “probably the biggest thing slowing down security lines.” Liquids cannot be in bottles larger than 3.4 ounces. If you have a water bottle, toss it before you get into line. Keep all your other liquids in a plastic, clear, zip-top bag that easily removed for inspection. If possible, save yourself the time and hassle by simply packing your liquids in checked bags.
When traveling with pets or children, preparing everything in advance can save minutes at security. Take your infants out of the stroller and your pet out of its carrier while you’re in line. Be prepared to put the stroller or carrier through the X-ray machine, so collapse them if possible. You’ll have to carry your baby or pet through the metal detector, so stow your documents in a safe and easy-to-access pocket so you can promptly show your boarding ticket to the official.
More experienced travelers have other tricks that are second nature. For example, don’t wait until you reach the front of the line to start emptying your pockets. Take a minute to stash your watch, keys and loose change in your carry-on. Even if you’re using one of the new “checkpoint friendly” laptop bags, tie and neatly stow the additional wires so it won’t look like a bomb when it’s X-rayed. And because “everyone has to take off their shoes,” says Payne, wear easily-removable footwear such as flip-flops or slip-ons. Choose pants that don’t require a belt, and opt for an easily removed sweater or jacket, which TSA officials may make you send through the X-ray machine separately.
Many airports—JFK and LAX, to name two—require travelers to escort their checked baggage through an additional screening process. Avoid this extra line by packing everything in your carry-on. Or, ship your luggage to the destination. Your bags are less likely to get lost that way, and since most airlines now charge for second and third checked bags—ranging from $10 to $100 per item—you’re not spending that much more money.
According to Schneier, the time that you fly matters, too. “If you’re traveling on Sunday afternoon,” he says, “be prepared for Amateur Day.” Book your flight on a weekday morning before 9 a.m., so you’ll be traveling with predominantly business travelers who speed through security. For his part, Schneier always chooses the line with the most seasoned-looking fliers. “They know what the deal is.”
Don’t randomly choose a security lane, either. Average line times can vary significantly between checkpoints—even at the same terminal. Though the TSA has a Wait Time Calculator on its web site and a text service that will send security wait times to your phone, both services were down at press time. Instead, use a smartphone app to help you speed through security. TSAwait, on iPhone, and TripCase, on Blackberry, use security wait time history to predict the line length you are likely to encounter. It’s a good idea to refer to these resources when booking a flight, too, so you can book a flight with departure time that corresponds with the quickest security clearance periods.
Though the Clear registered traveler program—which helped roughly 250,000 subscribers speed through airport security lines—has been shuttered, the TSA still recognizes a number of other programs including SENTRI and FAST. Another one, NEXUS, for example, helps registered travelers save time when crossing the U.S.-Canada border. The program has 16 border crossing locations, including eight at major Canadian airports such as Toronto Pearson International Airport and Vancouver International.