UPDATE: Trifecta of Crappy Airplane Stories

After going through a ringer of horror with three different airlines on Friday, Sebastien and his family retreated home to try again the next day. On Saturday, he and his brood were “selectees” earmarked for special detention by TSA at the security checkpoint. Later, he noticed his ticket had “SSSS” printed in the lower right-hand corner. His return ticket, where he had no special inspeciton, had no such S’s.

“After talking to a few other travelers,” he writes, “I came to realize that there’s a high possibility that airline tickets (or boarding passes) are printed with an “S” or a number of “S”‘s if a passenger or a party of passengers is going to be taken out of line by the TSA for a full luggage inspection and pat down. The number of S’s depends on how many people are in a party.”

What will happen as this info spreads? Will we see people arguing at the ticket counter to get the scarlet letters removed? Will people swap tickets and barter items to get out of the cavity search? Will the statistical analysis of an independent third-party firm find that the SSS’s are less likely to appear on first-class tickets?

Hopefully, in the midst of the ensuing confusion, no bombs or snakes get smuggled aboard.

Previously: Trifecta of Crappy Airplane Stories


Edit Your Comment

  1. nweaver says:

    Actually, thats wrong.

    SSSS is specific code saying “secondary screening”

    It has nothing to do with the number in the party. Its kind of a black box why/when this comes up.

  2. jonfeldman says:

    There is a 100% chance that if your ticket has SSSS printed across the bottom you are going to spend extra time in security. That mark indicates to security that the airline’s computer has selected you for secondary screening – this can happen if you purchased your ticket in the last 24 hours, changed your ticket recently, are traveling one way, have a funny looking name, pretty much you name it. The good news is two fold – checking in online generally breaks the secondary screen flag on your ticket, and many airports are getting the giant GE all-over-glaucoma puffer systems which speed up the screening considerably.

  3. B Borrman says:

    And Sebastien and his family were picked because they were issued a last minute, one-way ticket on the Delta flight. That is one of the triggers in the TSA system.

    The SSSS gets printed by the system when one of the automatic triggers goes off.

  4. Falconfire says:

    Stil, you got to admit that for whatever the SSSS means, once it becomes more widely known it could potentially be exploited.

  5. Large says:

    Let me preface my comments by saying I worked for one of the big two airlines for 2 years in a regional feeder airport. I left the company because of issues with local management. I do not particularly care for airlines and the way they treat people. Having said that, when I see complaints like this one it just makes me happy I no longer have to deal with passengers, like this guy, who most likely travel once or twice a year, but expect everyone to recognize that they’re the most important air travellers at any given time. First, United doesn’t just “cancel a flight for no reason” or to screw up your day. It could have been a mechanical malfunction, a crew scheduling issue, or the plane may not have been there. Even if the weather is beautiful in Boston it may not have been clear and perfect wherever it was coming from. They lose out on tons of money and have to deal with pissed off customers when they cancel flights so it’s never for some arbitrary non-reason. Second, yeah that sucks TSA lost your ticket, Sebastien, but security is there for a reason. And I’m sure getting yelled at by obnoxious passengers is going to make them do their job much faster. In fact, go ahead and try it next time you’re in line and see how long it takes for you to wind up in the back seat of a squad car. Third, I’m so glad you’re advocating the bankruptcy of the airlines and subsequent loss of at least 100,000 jobs because you had one bad day. You’re a real humanitarian, dude. This may come across as me being an apologist for the airlines. I truly am not. There are many legitimate complaints out there. In fact, I’ve seen a few on this site. However, the vast majority of them are from guys like this who neither have the patience nor the understanding required to travel nowadays. If you miss your flight, take a deep breath. The airline isn’t going to strand you. If you show up at the gate two minutes before departure time, don’t scream at the gate agent because they won’t let you on. That time on the screen is the push back time and yelling will never help you at an airport. If you complain at security, it’s only going to make TSA suspicious that you’re hiding something. Checking in online won’t always get you out of being a 4, but it’s still a good idea, especially if you’re not checking luggage. The key thing to remember is this: those people that you may want to scream at for screwing up your day are the only people who can help you salvage it. Yes, customer service is of the utmost important but don’t expect it if you refuse to treat employees who are underpaid, overworked, and listening to passengers call for their blood all day when something doesn’t go right with even a shread of common human decency.

  6. Large says:

    Oh and one more thing, 4 S’s can’t be removed once a ticket is printed (government rules), are done entirely by computer (meaning airline employees cannot add someone to the 4 list without just cause, like if they don’t have valid id) so statistical variance is irrelevant, and bartering is impossible because tickets have your names on them and if you knowingly try to go through security with someone else’s ticket you get in big trouble.

  7. jonfeldman says:

    Its going to be hard to barter items or switch tickets to avoid the screening, unless you have exactly the same name as someone else. The SSSS mark is designed for the non-TSA document checker ahead of screening – when they compare your ID to the ticket they see the mark and dump you into the secondary screening line. I can also say from personal experience that arguing with the ticket agent isn’t going to get them removed – the database put it on your ticket, not them, and there isn’t a thing in the unvierse they, their supervisor, or the head of the local TSA can do to take it off. Besides, who wants to end up on the No Fly List, which make SSSS look like a walk in the park?

  8. bifyu says:

    after having an airline “lose” our luggage for four days once on vacation, we’ve since made it a practice to travel light, taking only what we can fit on a carry-on. hey, that way they can’t lose it if it’s always in our possesion, right? except now, that will apparently trigger us for excessive screening. so our choices are to risk having our luggage mishandled by a large, uncaring corporation, or be repeatedly subjected to the inconvenience and delay of unnecessary security theater. nice.

  9. CatMoran says:

    Large said: security is there for a reason.

    Yeah. It’s there to give everyone a false sense of security, and to give undertrained TSA employees the chance to give people a hard time.

  10. Crissy in Honolulu says:

    Large, are 4 S’s typically printed by the computer? I’ve had them handwritten in red permanent ink on my boarding passes before.

    What’s the big deal about being selected for secondary screening, anyway? Everybody knows they’re supposed to show up for a flight at least two hours in advance — whether they actually do so is another story — mostly because the security line could be long or because you could be detained (for maybe five minutes if you’re not a complete dolt) for secondary screening. If you’re not trying to break any laws, it’s a non-issue!

    This isn’t the NSA peeping on your phone records, people. Geez.

  11. Ben Popken says:

    Brian writes:

    “Chalk up another confirmation of the four S’s guaranteeeing you a pull-aside inspection of all your gear. I’ve flown a dozen times in the past couple years and the only times I’ve ever been pulled aside… I distinctly remember those four S’s. Usually highlighted.”

  12. Ben Popken says:

    Farkle writes:

    “I don’t have a comment login, but just wanted to say the same thing happened to my mom–she had the SSSS on her ticket and got held up by security for hours while they searched everything. No idea why.”

  13. Keith Talent says:

    FWIW, being a Canadian flying through US airports on to Europe ensures I get the big SSSS prize. At a major airport, during a peak time, it’s better than going through the first class screening. You get the leave the line longer than the “free fifty dollar bill here line” and get escorted by a kindly old lady to a bunch of screeners sitting on their hands waiting for something to do. Win! I’m through in five minutes, the rest of the suckers are just making their first turn around pylons.

    If you want to bitch, bitch about having to take your shoes off now.

  14. jonfeldman says:

    Bifu – its unlikely that excessive, but well packaged, luggage will select you for secondary screening. Look like you know what you are doing, and its unlikely you’ll get a secondary screen. Stuff your neck pillow, nail file and shoes into an American Eagle bag with no closure and you had better beleive they’ll be paying attention…

  15. Large says:

    Chrissy, they are almost always printed by computer. However, there are instances where they will be written in by hand. Most of them involve last minute additions like no ID or suspicious bags. Be aware, though, that airlines cannot add you to the list unless there is a substantial reason to do so. So if you notice an agent writing in (not just circling or highlighting) the 4 S’s on your boarding pass it may be prudent to ask them why. CatMoran, I hope you never fly on El Al.

  16. Crissy in Honolulu says:

    Large: Interesting! I’ve only been pulled for secondary screening once, I think. I always fly roundtrip and almost never travel alone, and I think the one time I got pulled, I was actually on a chartered flight! So that was kind of weird, but, like I said, it wasn’t a big deal because I showed up early.

    No matter what anybody’s beef is with the TSA — and clearly, people have reason to be angry about theft and the like — what Sebastien’s story boils down to is that he showed up pretty darned close to flight time. The reason for his getting the 4S treatment or what the 4Ss mean is completely irrelevant.

  17. OkiMike says:

    I earned my four Ss after arriving late, missing my flight and buying a new ticket on a new carrier for a flight an hour later.

  18. billhelm says:

    They’ve been putting something like this on boarding passes for at least a year. Certain things trigger it in the computer and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

    Getting rebooked onto a new flight is almost a guaranteed certainty of this showing up.

    I was on a flight last year in which the entire plane was re-booked onto new equipment only a day or two before the trip and EVERY SINGLE PASSANGER on that flight got selected for screening. The front counter people working couldn’t believe it – it was clearly an error caused by the system.

  19. IRSistherootofallevil says:

    TSA sucks. Really. Actually the entire Bush administration sucks. They can’t do anything right. By the way, it’s not my problem if there are mechanical failures, crew scheduling issues, whatever. I didn’t TELL them to have mechanical failure, whatever. That’s not my problem. I didn’t TELL the gate agents to keep working for whatever bankrupt legacy career they’re working for. Welcome to the free market. There’s something called getting a new job if they don’t like working for United, or Delta or whatever. I pay good money to fly, and besides, I pay their salaries. My tax dollars go to these incompetent dipshits, and I have every right to be pissed about being harassed and humiliated by someone with half the educational credentials, IQ and bank account that I have. Especially when these dipshits are only creating a false sense of security when the system’s full of holes. I say fire the whole damn lot of them. Just go to the TSA payroll and put it through the shredder. Privatize the damn thing. Anything the government can do, the private sector can do better and cheaper.

    Besides, the government is the enemy.

  20. EdwinaImbicile says:

    I completely agree the four S’s is some bull they tell you its random
    its not random all names are on a list in the Govt Soc Sec system so
    its not random this is my second time flying in two weeks that I got
    those stupid four S’s I think its crossing profiling lines and soon
    people are gonna catch on!

    Sent from my iPhone