The Most Surprising Secrets TSA Agents Really Wish You Knew
Everybody hates going through airport security. Before you even get there, you have to stand in line forever, surrounded by crowds of annoying travelers. Then, you probably find yourself holding your breath as the Transportation Security Administration agent scrutinizes your ID and boarding pass. And once you’ve cleared that hurdle, you have to juggle your shoes, your coat, and all your belongings into plastic bins, so you can wait your turn to walk through the body scanner.
Even though you can’t fly without spending at least a few minutes at the TSA checkpoint, most travelers don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes. Below, check out the most surprising secrets that TSA agents really wish you knew. You might just conclude that airport security is as annoying for TSA agents as it is for you.
1. TSA agents use code words to talk about travelers
Ever wondered whether the TSA agents at airport security were talking about you? They might have been. Mental Floss reports that at many TSA checkpoints, agents settle on code words to talk about passengers. They often use those code words to alert their co-workers to particularly attractive or annoying travelers. If you’re particularly annoying or mean, they might even single you out for extra screening. So try to be on your best behavior.
2. The TSA looks for specific behaviors to find terrorists
Despite doubts that the TSA can effectively find dangerous people — and not dangerous items in travelers’ bags — the agency is always on the lookout for terrorists and criminals at the airport. The TSA even compiled a list of behaviors that might signify that somebody is a terrorist. And when that confidential document was published, it made quite a splash. As The Intercept reported, the underlying program has attracted controversy due to the lack of science supporting it — but TSA agents have to comply with instructions regardless of whether there’s science backing up the rules or not.
3. TSA agents don’t do the same thing all day
Think the guy checking IDs or yelling at travelers to take off their shoes has been in the same spot all day? Think again. Mental Floss reports that an agent can typically work on the same task for only 30 minutes at a time. Then, they rotate to a different station. The rationale? After 30 minutes, they might start to make mistakes or miss things — which isn’t ideal when your job is to keep everybody safe and secure.
4. Your hairdo might get you additional screening
If you ever find yourself debating whether you should leave your hair down or pile it high on a trip to the airport, you should always choose to leave it down or pick a simple style. That’s because, as Mental Floss learned, an intricate hairdo or a fancy updo can trigger additional screening. At least in theory, hair piled on top of your head could conceal a weapon. And the body scanner is more likely to give a false positive for your head than for any other region of the body.
5. Carrying food? It might look like explosives on the X-ray
You can pack food in your carry-on, whether you want to take a sandwich to eat on the plane or you’re carrying a cut of meat or a wheel of cheese to enjoy later. However, Mental Floss learned that you should expect some additional screening if you do carry that giant hunk of cheese. That’s because meat, cheese, and other organic products will look orange on the screen of the X-ray machine — just like a block of explosives. The TSA agents are just doing their job if they pull you aside to take a closer look.
6. TSA agents often don’t want to confiscate your belongings
The TSA agents working at a checkpoint have to follow the rules, even if they think those rules shouldn’t apply. A TSA agent probably doesn’t want to have to confiscate the bottle of Champagne that you brought to celebrate your anniversary. And they likely think it’s as ridiculous as you do that they can’t allow you to take a slightly-too-large bottle of shampoo on the plane. They have to enforce the rules, but that doesn’t always mean they think the rules are right.
7. They sometimes sell confiscated items
The TSA ends up confiscating a variety of items from travelers. Some of those items are valuable. Insider reports that the agency collects all of those confiscated items and then ships them to states that want to make some extra money. Those states then sell them either online or at local government surplus outlets.
8. They’ll let you take a prohibited item back to your car
If you have the time to spare, TSA agents will always allow you to exit the checkpoint and take a prohibited item back to your car. Most of the time, you won’t want to stand in the security line again and go through the checkpoint for a second time. But if you accidentally end up with an irreplaceable, but prohibited, item in your carry-on, you’ll be glad to have this option in your back pocket.
9. They only get to keep the loose change you forgot
As travelers rush to exit the checkpoint and catch their flight, many accidentally leave some belongings behind. As The Huffington Post reports, the TSA runs an “extensive” lost and found operation to try to reunite travelers with their lost items. The only lost item that the TSA gets to keep is the loose change that ends up at the bottom of those plastic bins. The Huffington Post reports that in 2014, the agency “collected more than $670,000 in unclaimed money, which goes directly back to TSA to use for aviation security operations.”
10. TSA agents don’t want to slow you down
The Huffington Post also reports one of the biggest challenges for TSA agents is figuring out how to get infrequent travelers through the checkpoint quickly, so they don’t slow down frequent flyers. The TSA isn’t there to slow you down, and the agents at airport security don’t want the security screening to hold everybody up. Realize that they’re doing their best to keep everything running smoothly and calmly — and get to the airport early, just to be safe.
11. Cats are a bigger hassle for TSA agents than dogs
Thought it was a hassle to get the paperwork and make arrangements for your dog or cat to go with you on your next flight? Just imagine what it’s like for the TSA agents who have to screen both dogs and cats at airport security. Mental Floss reports that according to one agent, “rogue felines have created more havoc and confusion than any suspected criminal.” A cat that escapes in airport security and hasn’t been patted down to check for weapons is technically a security breach and could shut down an entire airport terminal. Dogs, on the other hand, are typically much more cooperative — and less of a hassle for the TSA agents on duty.
12. The TSA agent operating the body scanner has to tell the machine whether you’re male or female
Nobody likes going through the TSA’s body scanner. But transgender travelers and passengers who identify as non-binary have an extra reason to hate the machine. As Mental Floss reports, the TSA agent operating the scanner has to hit a button to tell the machine whether the person inside is male or female. As the publication reports, “A female passenger’s anatomy would raise a red flag when the machine expects to see male-only parts, and vice versa.” The National Center for Transgender Equality further explains that the TSA’s software can register “body contours not typical for a person’s gender as anomalies.” Objects, such as prosthetics and binding garments, can also register as anomalies that necessitate further screening.
13. They don’t like it when travelers opt out of the body scanner
The TSA gives travelers the option of foregoing the full body scanner and undergoing a thorough pat-down instead. A pat-down might be necessary if the body scanner detects an anomaly, if your clothing is loose, or if you’re randomly selected for further screening. However, Mental Floss learned that TSA agents don’t really like it if you ask to skip the body scanner and have a pat-down instead. Many say it slows down the entire operation. Some agents even assume passengers who want to skip the body scanner don’t really know anything about the technology they’re opting out of.
14. They also don’t like it when you ask them to change gloves
If a TSA agent has to pat you down, it seems reasonable enough to ask them to change gloves. However, Mental Floss reports that many TSA agents don’t like hearing that request. Agents change their gloves frequently. In fact, the agent in question might have just put on a new pair of gloves before getting to you.
15. Some TSA agents don’t like to tell people where they work
Because the TSA has gained such a terrible reputation, many TSA agents don’t like to tell people where they work. Mental Floss learned that some just tell people that they work for the Department of Homeland Security if they have to answer the question. The moral of the story? Don’t assume that TSA agents like their employer’s reputation. Many of them don’t.
16. TSA agents forget the rules when they travel, too
You’d think TSA agents who spend their workday enforcing the rules would have no problem remembering them when they pack for vacation. Not so, according to ABC News. The network reports that TSA agents forget things, too. They sometimes end up with an oversized bottle of shampoo in their carry-on — just like everybody else who scrambles to pack for vacation.
17. You can blame delays on people who don’t read the signs
We all like to complain about the TSA holding everyone up at the airport (at least under our breath). But as ABC News reports, delays are more often the fault of travelers who don’t read the signs and don’t follow the rules. As you wait in line to get to airport security, you’ll see plenty of signs reminding people to remove liquids from their bags or take off their shoes. However, not everybody follows those instructions, which can mean longer lines and delays for everybody in line behind them.
18. The TSA checkpoint has more staff during the busy parts of the day
While it doesn’t always look like airport security has enough TSA agents on duty, ABC News reports that the agency does staff its checkpoints according to the airport’s schedule. For instance, at the Los Angeles International Airport, the TSA schedules more staff for shifts late in the day to accommodate all the passengers arriving for flights to Europe and Asia. Even if it doesn’t always look like it, the TSA is doing its best to keep up with the traffic patterns at each airport.
19. The security checkpoint isn’t the only security measure
ABC News reports once you get your shoes back on and collect your belongings, that’s not the end of the security measures you might see at the airport. The TSA sometimes conducts random checks at the gate area. The agency also uses explosive-sniffing dogs. Air marshals travel on many flights to keep everyone safe. Some pilots are even armed and trained by the TSA.
20. TSA agents don’t receive travel perks
Unlike airline employees, TSA agents don’t receive perks like free or discounted travel. In fact, Insider reports TSA employees cannot accept free travel and gifts unless they have a personal relationship with (or are a family member of) an airline employee. A TSA agent could even lose their job for accepting free travel or related perks.
21. Not everybody reads the standard operating procedure
A TSA agent interviewed by PopSugar reports that the agency’s standard operating procedure is several hundred pages long — and admits that not everybody actually reads the document. “Few of them have actually read the whole thing and are essentially relying on word of mouth. Taken alone, the individual restrictions make some sense, but combined, they’re a mess for anybody to figure out.” That could explain why the rules seem to change airport to airport, or even agent to agent.
22. You can use the TSA’s app to figure out what you can and can’t put in your bag
We’ve all found ourselves looking online to find out whether the TSA will allow some item or another in a carry-on bag. But did you know the TSA has an app that can tell you all of that information? MyTSA, available for both Android and iOS, can tell you not only which items they allow in your bag, but also which security checkpoints at your airport have the shortest wait times and other useful information. We bet TSA agents wish you’d download it.