What SSSS on Your Boarding Pass Means and How to Fix It

If you are a frequent traveler the process of going through security screening at the airport has probably become fairly routine. But if you are singled out for Secondary Security Screening Selection (SSSS) and you don’t know what it is, it can quickly turn into an unsettling situation. This was the case for me in Paris’, Charles de Gaul International Airport.

My hope is that this article will make you aware that this procedure exists and put your mind at ease if you find yourself being escorted to a location away from your gate for a “random” screening. Also, I will let you know how to tell if you have been selected, what you can expect, and what recourse you have to avoid being singled out for future trips.

Arrivals and departures

When I originally wrote this post, it was shortly after my return from Paris where I had been flagged for a secondary screening. The first iteration of that article included a story about a crazy series of events that occurred earlier in this trip. I’ve trimmed the tale from this post and made it purely informational. However, if you are interested you can read about the circumstances that lead me to think 4-Ss might lead me to be locked up abroad.

How Will I Know if I'm Targeted for Secondary Security Screening Selection?

If you are observant, you may notice SSSS in bold letters in the upper left and lower right-hand corners of your boarding pass.  If you see this it indicates that you have been singled out for a Secondary Security Screening Selection. While it may seem like bold letters screaming out like a flashing neon sign might be hard to miss, I overlooked them for two reasons.

First, on domestic flights or flights originating in the US I would normally confirm that TSA Precheck appeared on my pass. But because this was an international flight, I didn’t review my pass all that close. So, always be sure to closely review your boarding pass. Secondly, I didn’t know this was a thing. I thought if you were screened beyond the usual security checkpoint there was a reason for security’s suspicion. There was no reason for anyone to be wary of the 50-something woman traveling from Paris with her husband.

In retrospect, there may have been some indicators that could have alerted me that something was amuck. That is if I had been aware of the whole SSSS thing in the first place. There were a couple of things I could site as indications but honestly, I don’t know if there were warning signs or just coincidences. But, here are some things that might have tipped me off.  

Paris the Louvre

CLUE # 1 – You may not be able to check-in online

The night before our departure, my husband and I both tried to check in online.  Neither he or I were able to do so. But we weren’t concerned. There are so many reasons this could happen. We assumed the system was down or something minor was preventing us from completing the task. This seemed especially likely because our tickets were booked separately, on different receipts. But, after the fact, we weren’t so sure.

CLUE #2 – You may have trouble checking in using the kiosks at the airport

The following morning when we arrived at the airport, Bill had no issues checking in at the kiosks. But, when I scanned my passport, a screen came 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. No problem. I was able to proceed from there.

Once we checked-in and printed our boarding passes we proceeded to the counter and checked our bags. Then onward to security. I had no issues at security other than the usually activation of the scanner because of my hip replacement.  Throughout the process no one mentioned anything about the SSSS designation on my boarding pass.

Finally, we were at the gate waiting to board our flight when there was an announcement over the intercom calling me to see the gate attendant.

What to Expect if You've Been Selected for a Secondary Security Screening

I headed to the desk and the agent looks at my boarding pass and tells me, “you’ve been randomly selected for additional screening. Please follow me.” She escorts me to the area away from the waiting area at the gate. Here, the representative puts me in the queue and tells me to wait until I am called.

There are makeshift stations with security personnel. At those stations, they will ask you to remove all your electronics from your carry-on. The officer will take what looks a bit like an alcohol pad and swab all your components.  The swab has a chemical that reacts if it comes in contact with explosive residue.

You will also be asked to remove your shoes. They will repeat the same procedure with them.

I did not see anyone undergo additional scrutiny such as a pat down or further questioning but I suppose that happens if there is reason for suspicion.

Once the security officer finishes the process you are instructed to put your belonging back in your bag and to board the plane. You will not be permitted to return to the waiting area to rejoin your companion(s).

I found this a bit disconcerting. I wasn’t sure what my husband had been told, if anything. I wondered if he would know to board the plane. Your party will be advised of what is happening and be told to board when it is time.

All this may seem obvious or trivial but in the moment, I can assure you nothing seems standard. I admit, this might be a byproduct of being female.

Why Was I Flagged? Is SSSS Random?

I can’t say why this happened to me. Though I was told this was a “random screening,” based on what I have read, it may not be as random as the airlines had me believe. There are a number of reasons it could happen other than being on a watch list, including, mismatched names, open-ended or one-way flights, last-minute flights, and travel to destinations that may raise suspicion from the government.

In my case I think that there may have been a few red-flags. First, I don’t have the easiest name. Yes, I was in France and have a ridiculously French name but the hyphenated last name causes me all sorts of headaches. Next, we had taken a train from London to Paris. Perhaps somehow this raised some suspicion. Also, I had been to Mexico a number of times the past few years. I kind of doubt that is the reason but who knows? Perhaps it was because I’d 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. Or maybe it wasn’t any one of them at all.

Moulin Rouge

As for the randomness of the selection, 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 precheck. But, apparently, the SSSS designation can follow you from one trip to another.

Is SSSS Permanent? And, What's the Process for Getting it Removed?

The good news, if you find the dreaded 4S on your boarding card, is that you can dispute it. Also, there is the possibility it really was a one-time occurrence.

As a travel writer, I cannot afford to be routinely delayed so 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. This just doesn’t work for me. I like to spend as little time in the airport as possible.

The 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 Precheck which clearly does not guarantee you will not be flagged. Nor does Global Entry. Here’s my gripe about that. I spent extra money on TSA Precheck 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 Precheck 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 Precheck) 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.

What You Can Expect from the Redress Process

The Redress process is less than efficient. You can check the status of your submission but in my case, the online system told me that they needed further documentation which I had already submitted. I submitted them again but continued to see the same message.

After a couple of weeks with no updates on the status of my redress, I emailed DHS. This wasn’t particularly helpful as they didn’t respond for several months. That came as no surprise but I figured it was worth a shot. When I finally heard from them they informed me they had received my redress application and documentation. I was assured my application would be processed in the order received.

Roughly 7 months later I received a “case closed” email. Here’s are the main points of the correspondence I received.

“DHS TRIP can neither confirm nor deny any information about you which may be within federal watchlists or reveal any law enforcement sensitive information. We have found that about 2% of the DHS TRIP complainants actually have some connection to the Terrorist Watchlist. Complaints most often arise either because the traveler’s name and personal information are similar to the name and personal information of another person (sic) or because the traveler has been delayed in travel for reasons unrelated to such data, such as by random screening.”

The email goes on to give these tips for future travel:

“1. When traveling by air to or within the United States, DHS recommends that you provide your redress control number (located at the top of this letter) when making your reservations. Providing this information will help prevent misidentifications from occurring during security checks against government records and other information. In most online reservation systems, your redress control number may be entered at the same time you enter your full name and date of birth.

2. When entering the United States from abroad, no additional action is required. Where appropriate, as a result of the redress process, DHS employs a procedure to correct the information used to process travelers at the ports of entry that reduces the chance of misidentifications occurring.”

And finally, they say, “Despite these positive efforts, we cannot ensure your travel will be delay-free.”

UPDATE:

It’s been 2-1/2 years since all this happened. Because of COVID-19, we’ve all lost over a year of travel. But the flights I’ve taken have been without further scrutiny. This is likely a good indicator that my selection in Paris was truly “random.” I hope so.

Susan Decoteau-Ferrier

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

20 Comments:

  1. That was so informative. I never knew about this process and I’m so relieved to know that you didn’t have to go through a lot of trouble due to this.

  2. Thank you for sharing this, I never knew! So informative.

  3. Thank you for sharing what happened to you, I had no idea about SSSS!! Sounds like it was a bit of a pain but I’m glad it seems to have worked out in the end.

  4. Oh wow! I didn’t even realise SSSS was a thing! I’m going to be so curious to check my ticket next time I fly! Thank you for writing about it 🙂

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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).

  9. 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.

  10. 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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