Airport Security: 10 Things You Need to Know for 2020

Airport security is often a nightmare — but it doesn't have to be. (Source: iStock / baona)

Planning a vacation is fun, but the drudgery of airport lines is less fun. Add to that the rigamarole of airport security and you have the makings for an unhappy start (and end) to an otherwise blissful escape. To help you jump these headache-making hurdles with ease, we’ve assembled the top tidbits you should know about airport security in 2020. Read on to ensure peace of mind:

1: CLEAR is really best for frequent travelers who don’t regularly fly business or first class domestically.

Available in 29 cities (and counting), CLEAR is an appealing way to bypass cumbersome securities protocols at the airport. Well in advance of your flight, you have to sign up at a CLEAR location in one of the airports it serves (by submitting iris and finger scans); come flight time, this helps cut down on the security lag. That said, if you regularly fly first class or business class, CLEAR probably isn’t worth the $179/year price tag. Since premier passengers usually get to jump to the head of the security line, the time savings are negligible.

CLEAR has become increasingly popular with travelers. (Source: Shutterstock / BCFC)
CLEAR has become increasingly popular with travelers. (Source: Shutterstock / BCFC)

2: TSA Pre 🗸 is a good choice for semi-regular travelers with temporary disabilities or those who fly with lots of electronics.

You might be asking: Why choose when you can get the speed of CLEAR? Money, mostly. While CLEAR will set you back close to $200 per year, TSA Pre 🗸 only costs $85 for five years. Also, while you don’t get to bypass the security line altogether, you do get to run through a much shorter, expedited line and can keep those electronics (and liquids) in your bag. (Fair warning, however: The process to secure TSA Pre 🗸 is someone clunky, involving forms and an in-person interview.)

3: Global Entry is a hassle to set up — but worth it if you travel internationally at least once a month.

A cumbersome application and review process (with onsite interview requirements at only select locations across the country) means Global Entry is kind of a pain to get set up. That said, the $100 application fee (which will cover five years) is quite reasonable compared to CLEAR, and the benefits to international travelers are significant: drastically reduced wait times when wading through customs at stateside airports, plus TSA Pre 🗸 eligibility.  (Note: Global Entry is offered through U.S. Customs and Border Protection, not through the TSA, so you may need complete additional security screenings when you enter back into the U.S.)

4: No, you won’t get cancer from airport security screenings.

Airport scanners come in two forms: non-ionizing radiative and ionizing radiative. The non-ionizing kind is used for body scans, while the ionizing kind is used only on luggage. X-rays and other scanning technologies that use radiation are housed inside lead-lined boxes or containers (like the kind at the end of security line conveyor belts) to be sure radiation doesn’t affect travelers. In truth, though, the radiation emitted is not enough to cause bodily harm; as Dr. Lewis Nelson of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School claims, it’s the amount of radiation that makes it toxic and airport scanners don’t emit much.

5: Luggage locks really aren’t worth it.

There’s no question: Traveling poses some security risks you just don’t have to face at home. For those who are keen on protecting their belongings, luggage locks might seem like a godsend. But do they really do that much? In short: Not really.

You see, the TSA is required by law to have access to luggage for inspection, so they are provided master keys to luggage locks by the manufacturers. You can buy non-TSA-approved locks, but the TSA is likely to just cut them off. So you either go with a lock that’s going to be destroyed or a lock that has one master key. Neither one seems like a terribly secure option.

However, while many rightly argue TSA-approved locks are not useful as a fool-proof way to prevent access to your belongings, they are useful as a deterrent; if they cause a would-be thief enough hassle, he or she will likely move on to another bag that doesn’t have a lock. Plus, they make TSA happy since they don’t have to forcefully open your suitcase.

You have rights during a pat-down — make sure you know what they are. (Source: iStock / ALotOfPeople)
You have rights during a pat-down — make sure you know what they are. (Source: iStock / ALotOfPeople)

6: Pat-downs: You have more control than you know over how they happen.

Jokes aside, pat-downs can be uncomfortably invasive. The TSA claims they’re an unfortunate necessity when scanners detect possibly dangerous items carried on your person, but how much can agents be reasonably allowed to violate your personal space? Well, a lot — but there are ways to guide how the pat-down happens. Take a look at this overview from the TSA:

“A pat-down may include inspection of the head, neck, arms, torso, legs, and feet. This includes head coverings and sensitive areas such as breasts, groin, and the buttocks. You may be required to adjust clothing during the pat-down. The officer will advise you of the procedure to help you anticipate any actions before you feel them. Pat-downs require sufficient pressure to ensure detection, and areas may undergo a pat-down more than once for the TSA officer to confirm no threat items are detected.

TSA officers use the back of the hands for pat-downs over sensitive areas of the body. In limited cases, additional screening involving a sensitive area pat-down with the front of the hand may be needed to determine that a threat does not exist.

You will receive a pat-down by an officer of the same gender. TSA officers will explain the procedures to you as they conduct the pat-down. Please inform an officer if you have difficulty raising your arms or remaining in the position required; an external medical device; or areas of the body that are painful when touched. You may request a chair to sit if needed.

At any time during the process, you may request private screening accompanied by a companion of your choice. A second officer of the same gender will always be present during private screening.”

In short, know your rights. Make sure you have someone of the same gender do the pat-down and insist they announce their movements before they start patting. Lastly, if you think they’re taking things too far, alert a fellow TSA agent.

7: Keep an eye out for biometrics scans at major airports.

In 2015, the TSA started experimenting with biometric scans as another way to manage security screenings. CLEAR is already using this technology, but the government is a bit slower to jump on the bandwagon. Still, small tests at select airports will become more prominent throughout 2020, so don’t be surprised if you see some biometric screenings on your way to the gate. At the moment, tests are being run on face scans at JFK Airport in New York City, and on fingerprint scans at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Denver International Airport.

Biometrics are becoming more of a focus for TSA security. (Source: iStock / andresr)
Biometrics are becoming more of a focus for TSA security. (Source: iStock / andresr)

8: Automated screening may remove the human lag in security screenings.

Already a feature of airports in Las Vegas, Houston, Chicago, and Seattle, automated screening lanes are designed to make the required screening process more efficient — by removing some of the humans doing the scanning. We’ve seen this in action and it’s debatable how much time it actually saves, given that the humans being screened also tend to lag in getting their electronics and liquids removed, their bins in the right place, and so on. Still, it’s something you may find rolling out in airports across the U.S. in 2020. For a video of this in action, visit the TSA website.

9: To ensure the safety of all passengers, TSA flatly claims that no individual — regardless of Pre🗸, CLEAR, or Global Entry status — is guaranteed expedited screening.

It’s true — and if you think about it, it makes sense. The primary goal of TSA agents in airports is to ensure security, not to expedite your travel. What’s more, the primary authority of security at major airports is the federal government (via the TSA) — not a for-profit business — so it’s not like you can pay to get out of a mandatory screening. Also, the faster you comply and the more cooperative you are, the faster the screening will go, so work with the agent doing the screening — not against them.

10: Don’t forget to get your REAL ID; you’ll need it to get to your plane (even if you use a security expediting service like CLEAR).

Starting in 2020, airports across the country will begin requiring passengers to present a REAL ID in order to make it through the security line. These are indicated with a star at the top of the ID, and simply show that you have provided additional documentation to the ID issuer that you are who you say you are. In other words, it’s another layer of security that ensures would-be travelers can’t use fake IDs to get on a plane. And yes, it’s a requirement for all flyers, regardless of how you get through security lines. (Check with your state’s Department of Licensing for details on how you can get one by the October 1, 2020 deadline.)

Once through security, have a look at our top 8 airport tips to successfully navigate the rest of your airport experience. Bon voyage!