Almost Locked Up Abroad or So I Thought: What SSSS on Your Boarding Pass Means

I apologize for the click-baity title. But now that I have your attention, in the interest of full disclosure, I was not all that close to being locked up abroad. However, that’s where my brain traveled as I was being detained for a Secondary Security Screening (SSSS). That said, if you want to bounce I get it. But you may find this an interesting tale and some valuable information.

On a recent trip to London and Paris, I had an incident. This one occurrence lead to another and then to another. Here’s my story.

On my last day in England, I was traveling to Brighton by train from London. Prior to boarding our train at Victoria Station, my husband and I decided to grab a cup of coffee. I ordered my large Americano with milk. Nothing unusual about this.

If you have been to Europe you may know that some coffee shops add hot milk to their coffee rather than cold as we would do in the US. That was the case where we purchased our morning Joe.

We went on our way and proceeded to board our train. What happens next, I can’t recall with 100% certainty but will do my best.  As I was sitting down on the train, the lid of my coffee popped off spilling the entire contents of my large (probably 16 or 20-ounces) Americano all over my lap. The dress I was wearing immediately clung to me like a terrified 2-year-old sticks to its mother.  All the while burning the hell out of my legs. Front, inside and back of my thighs. Yes. thighs, plural meaning both.

A lovely young woman, thinking quick handed me her bottle of cold water which she had just opened and said, “Quick, pour this on it. It will stop the burning.” I did. It was too late.

 

You are probably wondering how this has anything to do with a Secondary Security Screening Selection (SSSS) at the airport. Hang in there. I will fast forward to that. I will also let you know how to tell if you’ve been selected before you’re being ushered off to some out of the way location.

What Happened Next

When we arrived at our destination, the first thing we did was ask the cab driver to take us to a pharmacy. He did and was kind enough to wait for us while we consulted with the pharmacist and got bandages and other remedies for burns and pain.

The pharmacist was reluctant to just give me bandages and topical treatments as the burns were severe enough that she thought I should see a doctor. I explained that we were on our way to a 50th Anniversary party and would get ice on it when we arrived at the restaurant. I also told her I would see a doctor if necessary. I had no intentions of doing this.

We went on to the party and I did as I said. By the next day, I was not in any significant pain but the burns had begun to blister. I said to myself, “this will be fine as long as they don’t burst.” Also, we headed to Paris that day so there was no time to get bogged down with such trival things such as my wellbeing.

We took the Chunnel to Paris, which I will say is a bit of a let-down. But, I mention our transportation because I suspect it is relevant to the story.

Because I was not in much pain, my injuries did not interfere too much with enjoying our time in Paris. The biggest obstacle was trying to keep my bandages in place and making sure I had enough supply. This meant several trips to the pharmacy over the course of the next several days.

The pharmacist I spoke with when I went to purchase more of the burn treatment in Paris insisted upon seeing the burns. We went to the storeroom and I showed them to her. She was horrified more at the extent of the burns that the severity. But by this point, some of the blisters had burst and she was seriously concerned about infection. She referred me to a doctor, who I saw the following morning.

The doctor prescribed an antibiotic and sent me on my way. My husband and I continued to enjoy our trip without any issues. That is until I tried to check-in online for our flight home and was unable. CLUE # 1

At the Airport

The fact that I needed to check-in at the airport didn’t concern me. There are so many reasons this could happen. Also, my husband was unable to check-in online. I assumed the system was down or something minor was preventing us from doing so. Furthering this belief was the fact that our tickets were booked separately, on different receipts.

The next morning, we took a cab to the airport, which I don’t recommend if you can avoid it as it is expensive. Upon our arrival, we proceeded to the kiosks to check-in. Bill had no issues. I, however, when I scanned my passport I had a screen come up informing me I needed assistance from an American Airlines representative. I found one. She came to my kiosk and swiped her badge and entered a code. CLUE #2 Once we checked-in and printed our boarding passes we proceeded to the counter and checked our bags. Then onward to security.

At security, they waved me through to the metal detector. In the US I have TSA Pre-check so unless I am singled out, I can bypass the scanner. But for whatever reason, 50% of the time they select me. That’s more than anyone I travel with.

I know from past experience that depending on how sensitive the detector, I may trip it. I had my hip replaced a few years ago and despite being told it wouldn’t sound the alarm because my replacement is titanium, it happens from time to time. It’s generally not a big deal. I tell the security person I’ve had my right hip replaced and sure enough, that’s the area where they get the alarm. Sometimes this means I will get a quick pat down from a female security agent. No big deal.

Well, sure enough, I sounded the bell. I go through my usual explanation and get the once over once over from the female agent. But this time was much more thorough than what I normally get. I began getting nervous because I knew my legs were bandaged and she was going to be able to tell there was something under the leggings I was wearing. I told her about the burns. She said nothing. Therefore, I have no idea if she even understood. Nevertheless, she sent me on my way.

My husband and I find our gate and then go to grab a bite to eat before boarding. As we eat, I hear names being called to see a representative at the desk. My husband and I finish our food and he heads to the restroom. While I am waiting near the gate, I hear my name called. CLUE #3 I debate going directly to the desk but am afraid Bill may not know where I’ve gone. He’s taking longer than I anticipate and my name is called again. I begin to make my way to the desk while keeping an eye open for him.

“You’ve been Randomly Selected.” Hint: there’s no prize.

The agent looks at my boarding pass and tells me, “you’ve been randomly selected for a secondary security screening. Please follow me.” At that point, I am more concerned about my husband being unable to find me than anything else.

He appears and I shout to him that they are taking me somewhere for another security check. He nods and tells me to go on. I follow the agent.

We get to the area between the waiting area at the gate and the entrance to the plane. The representative puts me in the queue and tells me to wait until I am called. There are other people ahead of me with security personnel being scrutinized and having their electronics swabbed.

This is when PANIC sets in. The brain starts to race and I start thinking of all those episodes of “Locked Up Abroad” I’ve watched. Oh, shit! Oh, shit! Oh, shit! I know I’ve done nothing wrong but they are going to frisk me again and feel those bandages under my clothes and think I’m smuggling.

I’m certain, they are going to sweep me off to another location. My mind heads back to those episodes of “Locked Up Abroad.” Some scary-looking Inspector Clouseau guy is going to interrogate me. Then they are going to bring in Helga to strip-search me. I’m sure of it. They will tell my husband he must board the plane and I will be left behind. Did I say, Oh, shit”?

Looking around, again, I see the American Airlines representative who had placed me in the line and assisted me at the kiosk. Knowing she speaks English, I call her to me. I tell her about my burns and that if they pat me down they are going to feel the bandages on my legs. She steps away and goes to speak with one of the security personnel. I suspect it was whoever was overseeing the operation.

She comes back to me and tells me something. I don’t remember what she said but I suppose it was something to reassure me.

Moments later they call me to the next security station. I head over to the gentleman. I can’t imagine he is going to search me personally. He asks me to take my items out of my carry-on. Next, he begins swabbing all my electronics. He has me remove my shoes, then wipes them. At this point, I am fully expecting him to call over a female security agent. He doesn’t. He tells me to put my items back in my bag. I do and he tells me I can go.

I’m relieved and confused. I’m not sure if I must board the plane or if I can go back to the waiting area with my husband. I ask. He tells me I must board.

Now my concern shifts to Bill. Is he going to know that I’ve boarded and get on the plane? Will they tell him? Have they already told him? If they don’t tell him, I’m sure he will ask. I tell myself, he’ll get on the plane.

I take my seat on the plane and my mind begins to slow. I take some deep breathes and close my eyes for a moment. The plane is boarding. Here comes Bill. He sees me, smiles and says, “There you are.”

I feel better. He takes his seat and I ask him if he was told I would be on the plane. He tells me, “No. I was keeping an eye on you from the gate. I saw you board.” Really, they sweep me off and they didn’t tell him what happens next? Unbelievable.

Why??

Since I was told that I was “randomly selected” for this secondary screening at the airport I didn’t give it much thought except in connection to how I could write about it. I knew at some point I wanted to tell this story. The burns, the trip and my experience at the airport. I wasn’t sure what that looked like. However, I started doing some keyword research. (If you’re not a blogger you probably don’t know what that is but it’s not important here.) While doing the research I came across the acronym, “SSSS.”  I wondered what it meant. I learned the letters are an abbreviation for Secondary Security Screening Selection and if that 4-letter code appears on your boarding card you will undergo a higher level of scrutiny.

I didn’t recall seeing the letters on my boarding pass but thought I might still have it. Digging through some receipts and other papers collected on my trip, I found my boarding card. Sure enough. There it was. Right on the document in big bold letters on the upper left and lower right-hand corners. How did I miss this?

I think I missed it for two reasons. First, on domestic flights or flights originating in the US I would confirm that TSA Pre-check appeared on my pass. This flight didn’t fit so I didn’t review my pass all that close. Second, I didn’t know this was a thing. I thought if you were screened beyond the usual security checkpoint there was a reason for suspicion and there was no reason for anyone to be wary of me.

Now, let’s go back to me being told this was a “random screening.” Well, based on what I have read, it isn’t as random as the airlines had me believe. If it were truly random it would be a one-time thing, just like when you are singled out during the TSA screening even with the pre-check.

Apparently, the SSSS designation can follow you from trip to trip. At this point, I can’t verify that because I have not traveled since returning from Paris. But as a travel writer, this is certainly a concern.

Also, I can’t tell you why it happened to me. There are a number of reasons it could happen including, mismatched name, open-ended flights, last-minute flights and travel to destinations that may raise suspicion from the government.

Remember I told you that I took the train from London to Paris? Did that have something to do with it? It might. Perhaps I’ve been to Mexico too many times the past few years. I kind of doubt that is the reason. Is it because I’ve traveled to Egypt and Turkey, places the US Government is not so friendly with these days? Was it a combination of all these things? I suspect so.

What to Do About It

The good news, if you find the dreaded SSSS on your boarding card, is that you can dispute it. Also, there is the possibility it was a one-time occurrence.

I’m disputing it. I want to know why. Plus, if you’ve received this designation, you need to show up at the airport earlier to allow extra time for the privilege of the SSSS treatment.

Department of Homeland Security has what they call the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, DHS Trip. By completing a simple online form and supplying some documentation, you can find out why you were branded and how to get the designation removed.

As I’ve mentioned, I have TSA Pre-check which clearly does not guarantee you will not be flagged. Here’s my gripe about that. I spent extra money for TSA Pre-check and went through the screening process which includes being fingerprinted. (I had no problem with this because I have been fingerprinted many times for jobs.) Now I may be permanently flagged making my TSA Pre-check useless. I’m sure Homeland Security is not going to refund my money. But the letter you receive with your Known Traveler Number (KTN aka TSA Pre-check) states that it can be revoked for any number of reasons.

Now that I have submitted the documents for my case to be reviewed, I wait for a response. With any luck, it’s no big deal and they remove it. Case closed.

I will keep you all posted on the outcome and will update this post with any further useful information I receive on the matter.

Have you been put on the SSSS list? Were you able to get it removed? If so, add your tips in the Comments section.

 

 

 

Susan Decoteau-Ferrier

Travel writer/blogger, photographer. Avid potter and wanna-be artist. Wife, Mom to 6 fur kids, gardener, coffee snob.

12 Comments:

  1. So sorry to hear about the burn. I’ve been hearing more and more about SSSS.

  2. Scary stuff, but love your way of writing about it. I always dread being singled out for further checks. Having done several trips to Tel Aviv in the last couple of months, I’ve had my fair share of questioning and security ordeal (including laptop testing positive for explosives and being taken off me). But fingers crossed, so far I’ve always made it in time for my flight and didn’t have too much trouble.

  3. Wow. What an ordeal. So sorry to hear about the burn and it happened at the beginning of the trip! I’ll watch for that code now and never put that your trip is for business or that you’re a journalist. Red flags. Good luck next flight.

  4. Well that’s no fun. Yeah, so far TSA Pre-check and the speedy way I get back into the US has been well worth it. Especially since the last time I came across from Quebec into Maine I had to get out of my car, get searched, and wait for a background check. To know there is this SSSS deal, it’ll be interesting to see if you can get that kicked or if it will come up again. What a hassle. Glad you made it back. Hope the trip was good (other than the scorching).

  5. I had no idea about this SSSS thing. Thanks for telling your story…it was funny, but definitely useful! I will be sure to be aware of this next time I travel.

  6. Wow! That’s an incredible story, Susan. I’m so glad you got out of it relatively unscathed. I’ve never heard of an SSSS, but I’m definitely going to be on the look out now! Hope your legs healed up alright.

    • I didn’t either. And, thank you for asking. The legs are much better. I don’t think I will have any permanent scarring. I’ve never taken such good care of an injury. If not the scarring would have been massive.

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