What does SSSS imply on a boarding pass?

There’s hardly such a thing called perfect air travel where passengers enjoy their air experience to the fullest without any hassles during their air journey. Late check-ins, middle seats, unfriendly seat partners, flight cancellations and delays, long immigration lines, and so on easily create frustrations among passengers. To add to the misery, there’s an extra hassle for those travelers who get four letters ‘SSSS’ printed on their boarding passes. But what does SSSS mean?

SSSS is not an ordinary acronym on a boarding pass, but it subjects passengers to additional inspection at the airport. SSSS, which stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection, is a security measure used on domestic and international US flights which selects passengers for secondary screening. An SSSS code stamped on a boarding pass indicates the need for a thorough search at security checkpoints where passengers and their belongings are scrutinized for security reasons.

Boarding Pass American Airlines; Photo Wikipedia

Reasons behind SSSS code on a boarding pass

Secondary Security Screening Selection is the Transportation Security Administration’s computerized program that puts selectees through a much higher level of scrutiny than most other passengers normally go through. TSA’s Secure Flight System is a risk-based passenger pre-screening program to augment security that selects passengers by matching their names against those on watch lists and subjects them to spend extra time at Transport Security Administration.

TSA maintains a ‘Selectee List’ of people at random or intentionally for enhanced screening every time they fly. One won’t know how TSA adds passengers to Selectee List as they keep the information secret. If passengers have their names the same or similar to those on the TSA database, their boarding passes may typically have ‘SSSS’ stamped on them. There’s an international travel watch list, and any person who is a criminal and has an international watch out shares first name, last name, or any piece of information with you, then you will be allowed to fly only after undergoing heightened security screening. People who are mistaken for those on the ‘Selectee List’ are not charged for any crime and will be allowed to fly, but they are delayed, searched, and interrogated at airports.

SSSS in boarding pass
Photo: Kae Tee

The inconsistent travel behavior of customers such as last-minute flight booking, international one-way tickets, travels in high-risk countries, paying in cash may flag airline passengers for invasive TSA screenings. Having an unusual itinerary (multiple stops in multiple continents over a short period) and not organizing to pay prior entry fees to chosen place also indicate a red flag for the SSSS code.

The disparity of information between boarding passes and passports or travel documents may also influence the issuance of SSSS. If you are on the ‘no-fly list’ or if there’s anything suspicious about you, your ticket, or recent travel, then your experience at airport security will take longer than usual.

It’s a misunderstanding that good citizens won’t get the boarding pass that bears the SSSS stamp as there will be a random secondary security check.

Secondary Screening Procedure

If you see ‘Quad S’ on your boarding pass, expect lengthy delays for inspection. Most airports reserve security checkpoints to escort ‘Selectee List’ passengers for intensive screening, including additional scans, a thorough baggage search, hand-held metal detection, etc. The TSA agent alerts you that additional screening is necessary and asks you to step to the sideline while he radios his supervisor regarding Quad (which means SSSS). The extensive screening involves:

  • Passing through the metal detector and full-body scanner
  • Removing shoes, coats, and electronics
  • Full body pat-down
  • Opening of carry-on bags, unpacking, and inspecting every inch of carry-ons
  • Taking swab of hands, clothes, or baggage for trace narcotics or explosives
  • Powering on your electronics

Upon the completion of the inspection, TSA agents might question about travel, carry out an additional passport or identity check, take a picture of boarding pass and ID, fill out a form, and eventually stamp the boarding pass to indicate airline gate agents that you’ve been screened. In case of the absence of a boarding pass stamp, you’ll be flagged, and the gate agent will have to call the TSA to the gate.

Do passengers from some countries receive SSSS by default?

Secondary Security Screening Selection applies to US-bound passengers from several countries by default. Following the Obama administration’s move towards a tough airline security system in 2010, the United States of America announced a new directive including long-term sustainable security measures to begin effective aviation security beyond its borders.

Travelers passing from or through certain countries are automatically subject to mandatory full-body pat-downs and other extra screening methods. Those are high-risk countries such as Afghanistan, Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Yemen, etc. However, other passengers are also prone to special screening that can vary in severity.

Difficulties faced on getting SSSS on the boarding pass

America’s Secondary Security Screening Selection designates holders for multiple extensive screenings and overrides pre-approval through a Trusted Traveler Program such as TSA PreCheck (that deems you a low-risk traveler). It can be a full-blown nightmare and go as far as whole body search, 15-45 additional minutes for the screening process, detailed inspection of every inch of belongings and their swabs, and being put on the terrorist watch list. What’s more frustrating is being flagged repeatedly for invasive TSA screenings and getting the same level of treatment on future trips.

The lengthy airport delay and separation from travel companions are the least things travelers want while in the airport. But SSSS tag can make these horror-like dreams a reality, a kind of harassment for innocent travelers. Meanwhile, the list of names in the TSA database isn’t connected to physical description, birth date, or other unique identifiers, making it complicated to keep track of wanted people accurately. As a result, false positives, who have names similar to names on the list, have to undergo delays and anxiety time and again.

Why is SSSS necessary?

SSSS is an airport security measure to protect people and property from any harm and unlawful interference. After the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, and in the post 9/11 world, the US has made its security system tighter and tougher with this strict measure of SSSS.

TSA’s Secure Flight Program incorporates random and unpredictable measures into its procedures. Also, it prevents those on Terrorist Watchlist, No-Fly List, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ‘Do Not Board’ list from getting a boarding pass and keeps them off the plane. A single terrorist may be a threat to entire civil aviation. So, to safeguard the country’s aviation sector, Secondary Security Screening Selection is necessary.

Indications that you will go through enhanced security screening

The government doesn’t inform beforehand that you will be subject to enhanced security screening at the airport. The first signal that you’ll get the dreaded ‘SSSS’ is that you won’t be able to print your boarding pass online or use the airport kiosks for automated check-in but instead must report to the ticket counter in person.

When the boarding pass printed at the airport bears SSSS, it is confirmed that you will get extra screening. Airline staffs are sometimes willing to inform travelers if they belong to TSA Selectee List or what part of their identification matches someone on the list.

SSSS in boarding pass
photo from kafaak

How to remove SSSS code?

It feels like a lifetime when one has to go through additional security screening at the airport. Some unlucky passengers are repeatedly delayed at airports because they are mistaken for people on a watch list. To address this SSSS issue, it is necessary to apply for a Redress Number. The Office of Transportation Security Redress within TSA has the function of assisting passengers in reducing confusion between themselves and the person on the list. Travelers may fill up Traveler Identity Verification Form (TIVF) to avoid confusion and remove the SSSS code.

The US Homeland Security process also deals with SSSS issues. The DHS TRIP program (Traveler Redress Inquiry Program) allows travelers to fill out basic details reporting boarding and security issues. It may also be required to submit valid passport copies. The necessary investigation will be carried out by the Department of Homeland Security and will inform passengers soon. The redress number should be entered on all flight reservations going forward.

It must have been a random selection for those who receive SSSS code seldom.

To sum up

Secondary Security Screening Selection (SSSS) is a formal security flight measure in the airline travel security world. It is a code printed on passengers’ boarding passes based on their profile, travel history, and others, which requires passengers to undergo additional security checks. One-way reservation, payment of cash for tickets, unusual itinerary, and randomness are some of the selection criteria for SSSS. Although SSSS is crucial to safeguard air travel, some people get SSSS on their boarding cards more often and face unnecessary hassles. Submission of request to DHS Trip Website can help resolve future screening issues.

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