What does 'SSSS' on your boarding pass mean?

By Chris Chamberlin, May 28 2014

'SSSS'. It's a seemingly random set of letters on the boarding pass for your domestic US flight, but it means you're in for an extra security screening by the TSA agents.

The letters themselves stand for Secondary Security Screening Selection, although neither the TSA nor the airlines have revealed the criteria on which passengers are chosen.

So what does it mean when you see those letters appear on your boarding pass?

As well as the typical baggage x-ray and walk through metal detector (or body scanner), you could be in for a pat down, a manual baggage search, explosive trace detection or a once-over with a hand held metal detector – or even all of the above.

For this reason, if you notice upon checking in for your flight that your boarding pass is adorned with 'SSSS', we suggest heading directly to the security checkpoint because your screening time will take longer than usual.

Once you've been through those extra checks and have been cleared, a TSA officer will apply some distinctive markings to your boarding pass – in the photograph shown, this is the handwritten 'SSSS-10' and the three stars next to 'SSSS', although the markings change frequently and vary from airport to airport.

Those annotations on your boarding pass indicate that you’ve been screened appropriately to airline staff at the boarding gate.

It's a good idea to make sure that these annotations have been made once you're finished with the additional checks – if your boarding pass lacks them, you won’t be able to board until you've been re-screened.

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ChrisCh
ChrisCh

Chris Chamberlin

Chris Chamberlin is the Associate Editor of Executive Traveller and lives by the motto that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a great latte, a theatre ticket and a glass of wine!

TheRealBabushka

TheRealBabushka

21 Apr 2012

Total posts 3034

Very good to know Chris! Thank you!

curly

curly

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

07 Mar 2014

Total posts 73

I had this happen to me at SEA in 2003 as the only person in a group of 5 however the others were all USA passport holders. 

Even though I was sent down the much shorter queue the screening process took for-ever!


watson374

watson374

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 Aug 2012

Total posts 2221

"Five words: randomly selected for additional screening."

roby

roby

21 Sep 2011

Total posts 64

Not limited to domestic flights, SSSS happens all the time to international flights heading to the States as well. It may not happen often to Aussie passport holders but people are being screened at airports around the world.

I have had this happen to me at AKL and NRT. At AKL, your documents will be checked before you go near the boaring gates. If you have SSSS on your boarding pass, you will be sent to the room next to it and you and your bags will be searched. They won't neccesarily mark your boarding pass.

At NRT, before boarding commences, your name will be called to report to the boarding desk where you will be asked to go to the room next to the gate to do these things. Once it's done, they will return you back to the boarding area which I think defeats the purpose of the search. They will keep calling your name until all of these people are screened. Again, no marking on boarding pass. 

Merc25

Merc25

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Jun 2013

Total posts 367

Thanks for the advice.

CL9

CL9

22 Mar 2012

Total posts 200

If SSSS appeared on my boarding pass, I'd have a burning desire to scribble it out with a pen. ;)

flyboiwa

flyboiwa

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Feb 2012

Total posts 9

Hmmm def something to pay attention to!

nathanjordan

nathanjordan

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

21 Aug 2013

Total posts 130

As Robin Williams said, "We're just gonna randomly select some passengers...these names are TOTALLY random. Three Arab men and a blonde named Judy Smith..."

ozmille

ozmille

QF

07 May 2014

Total posts 2

Had it a couple of years ago and missed my flight, to say the least they were very very thorough, AA were very good in rebooking me on the next flight

ryanpst

ryanpst

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

27 Jun 2013

Total posts 37

Hey Chris,

Are you sure that its purely for additional (slower) screening?
When I was QF Platinum a couple of years ago I also had SSSS as well as PRIORITY on my boarding pass. I got walked through each step including customs and xray but I got through faster than everyone else.

Maybe I just had a good run? :-)

ChrisCh

ChrisCh

24 Apr 2012

Total posts 2917

Hey ryanpst,

I'm thinking you just had a good run – normally you wouldn't be walked through by the airport staff unless travelling in Qantas' first class cabin or had a tight connection, but methinks the word 'priority' saved you on that occasion! :)

peteshep

peteshep

15 Feb 2013

Total posts 134

One reason for this is if you make a sudden last minute change to your flight. Eg. Asking for an earlier flight will often mean you end up with this - has happened to me in Hawaii and LA. Also sometimes other unusual situations - extra luggage is one. We had 9 checked items once at LA for 2 people and got SSSS.

Fantic125

Fantic125

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 May 2014

Total posts 3

Happened to me a few times flying out of SYD. As you entered the boarding gate you were taken aside to (a barely) screened off area, given a pat down and a hand luggage search.

No big deal.

eminere

eminere

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Sep 2013

Total posts 1117

I love this kind of "behind-the-scenes"/travel-demystified stories.

dinkydie

dinkydie

01 Aug 2012

Total posts 30

Unless I'm missing something here this procedure is plain ridiculous. What is the point of enhanced security checks if the passengers selected are informed beforehand? It's a bit like the police telling burglars which streets the plain-clothes officers will be patroling tonight.

Bellthorpe

Bellthorpe

07 Jul 2014

Total posts 4

Two words: not random

sandymac

sandymac

29 Mar 2015

Total posts 1

I've had the 4S treatment several times :(  I was born in Africa and I suspect this causes alarm when it is seen on my passport.  My father was serving there as a British army officer - nothing sinister.  

On the first SSSS occasion, I was instructed to sit at a table with 2 chairs and I obeyed without comment.  I did turn my chair 90 degrees to face the second chair, as I was expecting an 'interview'.  Seemingly this was an excuse to trigger a very loud and hostile response from the security staff-member.  Later I suspected the chair had been facing a camera and I had upset their positioning.

I recently heard of another innocent passenger named Mr Atta who got the 4S treatment (Yes Mohamed Atta is named as the 'ring-leader of 9/11')  I gather he was advised not to travel ever again.  This seems like racial discrimination but focused on surnames!


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