Why Passengers Dread Getting SSSS On A Boarding Pass

Have you ever noticed having the four letters ‘SSSS’ printed on your boarding pass? This author has many times, and it has often led to some frustrating and lengthy airport delays. The code is used on domestic and international US flights to indicate that additional security screening should be carried out.

Airport security will take longer if you are selected for ‘SSSS’ additional screening. Photo: Getty Images

Secondary Security Screening Selection – SSSS

Airport security in many countries was improved significantly after the terrorist events of September 11th 2001. The US Transport Security Administration (TSA) was formed at this time and has increased security since with several schemes, including The Secure Flight program. The use of ‘SSSS’ codes has been formalized and strengthened under this – but its use is reported before then as well.

According to TSA:

“Secure Flight is a risk-based passenger prescreening program that enhances security by identifying low and high-risk passengers before they arrive at the airport by matching their names against trusted traveler lists and watchlists.”

SSSS Boarding Pass
SSSS is printed prominently on the boarding pass. Photo: Definitelynotdodgy via Wikimedia

Passengers are screened for security using government databases and their travel information. This can result in several actions – of course, travel could be denied and law enforcement involved in the most severe cases. Passengers identified as being of increased risk and requiring extra checks will have the code ‘SSSS’ printed prominently on their boarding pass. Security and border agents then know to apply enhanced security checks. This is used by TSA on all US domestic flights and international flights to and from the US.

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What generates the code

Several factors influence the issuing of ‘SSSS,’ but the exact processes and decisions are not made public for obvious security reasons. Being on security watchlists – including the FBI counter-terrorism watchlist – is sure to trigger the code.

Other factors that will influence its presence include booking one-way trips, booking flights last minute, or frequent recent travel. Travel between certain airports, or to or from certain countries, will make it more likely as well. Discrepancies between boarding pass and passport or ID information could also be to blame. In addition, ‘SSSS’ will sometimes be assigned at random.

SSSS Boarding Pass
SSSS on the boarding pass could be for many reasons, Photo: Jason Eppink via Flickr

What screening is carried out?

Extra security checks are, of course, good in the overall scheme of improving security, but for individual passengers, they can be frustrating. Having ‘SSSS’ on your boarding pass will likely subject you to more checks and a longer time to clear security. These are not usually carried out separately but will delay you as part of the main security screening.

Precisely what happens can vary but often includes additional scans, a more thorough search or check of luggage, and taking swabs from your hands, clothes, or baggage to check for narcotics or explosives. Agents are also likely to ask you questions about your travel, and you may have to wait while additional passport or identity checks are carried out.

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With ‘SSSS,’ you will receive extra checks at security and likely at border control for international travel. Photo: Getty Images

Removing the code

One of the problems with ‘SSSS’ is the same travelers tend to get selected repeatedly. Fortunately, there are some ways to address this – though, of course, nothing is guaranteed, and you may still be highlighted for security reasons. Joining the TSA PreCheck program is reported to help.

There is also a US Homeland Security process for addressing security problems, including ‘SSSS’ codes and issues with watchlists. The DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (details can be found here) allows travelers to report issues with boarding and airport security, and it will be investigated.

Have you ever seen ‘SSSS’ on your boarding pass? What extra checks did you experience? Feel free to discuss this or anything other aspects of airport security enhancements in the comments. 

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