No matter what your opinion of airport security is, there’s one fact that’s undeniable—post-9/11 security lines are longer and slower than they were before 2001. And though the increased security still makes sense seven years after the attacks, the slow processing speeds and long lines at airport security don't.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is aware that there's room for improvement, but they're not in a hurry to make your life easier. “The TSA cares about security,” says Bruce Schneier, security expert and author of "Schneier on Security", but “if you want to make security faster, there need to be more lines. They’re just not going to do that.”
To be fair, the TSA has made small steps toward improving the speed of security. They're introducing Advanced Technology X-ray scanners at major airports; installed self-select lanes so slow-moving families and expert travelers choose different lanes; and in August, they endorsed “checkpoint-friendly” laptop bags. These measures can help most passengers save a few seconds, but there’s still a lot more to do. Instead of waiting for a government organization to increase its own efficiency, travelers should concentrate on changing their own habits to speed up the process.
A little common sense and advance planning can shave seconds—possibly minutes—from your trip through security. “I design my life so I don’t beep,” says Schneier. “My life is checkpoint-friendly.” Schneier is an expert traveler who knows the finer details of TSA regulations. But even a quick glance at the TSA’s Web site can help the average traveler clear security more quickly, too.
First, there's the restriction on liquids, a subject of jokes by late-night television hosts since the moment it was introduced. Like it or not, as an air passenger, you must be sure "all of your liquids, gels or aerosols fit under those three-ounce quantity measures,” says TSA spokesperson Sterling Payne. He says, it's "probably the biggest thing slowing down security lines." Don't argue with security personnel or hope they won't notice your 12-ounce bottle of saline solution; simply use three-ounce containers. Or, pack liquids in your checked bags.
More experienced travelers have other tricks that are second nature. For example, don’t wait until you reach the front of the line to start emptying your pockets. Take a minute to stash your watch, keys and loose change in your carry-on. Even if you’re using one of the new “checkpoint friendly” laptop bags, tie and neatly stow the additional wires so it won’t look like a bomb when it's X-rayed. And because “everyone has to take off their shoes,” according to Payne, wear easily removable footwear such as flip-flops or slip-ons. Choose pants that don’t require a belt, and opt for an easily removed sweater or jacket, which TSA officials may make you send through the X-ray machine separately.
Many airports—JFK and LAX, to name two—require travelers to escort their checked baggage through an additional screening process. Avoid this extra line by packing everything in your carry-on. Or, ship your luggage to the destination. Your bags are less likely to get lost that way, and since most airlines now charge for second and third checked bags—ranging from $10 to $100 per item—you're not spending much more money.
According to Schneier, the time that you fly matters, too. “If you’re traveling on Sunday afternoon,” he says, “be prepared for Amateur Day.” Book your flight on a weekday morning before 9, so you’ll be traveling with predominantly business travelers who speed through security. For his part, Schneier always chooses the line with the most seasoned-looking fliers. “They know what the deal is.”
Don’t randomly choose a security lane, either. Average line times can vary significantly between checkpoints—even at the same terminal. Choose the wrong checkpoint on a Monday morning at Chicago O’Hare’s Terminal Three and you’ll face an extra eight minutes. Before heading to your airport, check the TSA’s Web site for each checkpoint’s average wait time. You can also text the TSA for the information: Send the word “wait” and the departure airport code (“wait LGA,” for example) to 44636.
If these time-saving measures still aren't enough, consider joining a registered travel program, such as Clear or Nexus. Customers of these concierge-like programs pay an annual fee and undergo a background check in order to zip to the front of participating airport security lines. These privately run programs don’t approve passengers for automatic clearance, but they can reduce wait times to as little as five minutes or less.