Airport security is one of the most stressful parts of travel, with the hurry-up-and-wait frustration evident throughout the queue. But there are some simple yet effective tips and tricks to speed your way through the process.
First off, run a quick web search (“security screening” plus your airport’s name) for the rules from where you’re departing, because they do differ. London Heathrow’s page is helpful, for example. “Passengers should be familiar with the current TSA security screening guidelines prior to coming to the airport, including limits on liquids and guidance for packing food and electronics,” advises Christina Saull from MWAA, which manages both airports in Washington, DC. And liquid doesn’t just mean liquid: the official wording from the US authorities is “liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes”. Sorry, Nutella fans: like everything else, it needs to be in 100ml (3.4 ounce) or smaller containers, in a sealable plastic bag. That bag can be one US quart (1.136 litres) according to the TSA in the States, while Heathrow cites a 20 cm by 20 cm size limit (8×8 inches). (Why the plastic bag? Well, one of the security layers is a sniffer machine that tests the air inside the bag to make sure you’re not bringing anything dodgy.)
Make sure that your devices are charged: one of the more recent checks is the “turn it on and show me it works” test, so if you’re running low on battery it’s a good idea to pop your device into flight mode or juice it up via an external battery. Before the checkpoint, I’ll start decanting anything metallic (wallet, watch, sunglasses, phone, keys) into the pockets of my jacket. I wear a casual blazer/jacket type of thing unless it’s absolutely roasting in the summertime, partly for precisely this reason. The jacket gets its own bin. Keep an eye out for whether people in front of you are keeping hold of their passports and boarding cards, or whether they’re being told to pop them in the screening bins. In fact, it’s a great idea to keep an eye and an ear out for the people at the front of the queue in case there’s some new regulation or the security screeners have decided that something different has to happen today.
At the checkpoint, assume that anything electronic needs to come out: that includes laptops, tablets, phones, e-readers, batteries, headphones, and so on. Sometimes you’ll be told “yes for Kindles, no for iPads” but I find it easier to just get in the habit of pulling everything out. Don’t layer electronics in the bins. Top tip: count your electronics in and out, and count your bins. It’s all too easy to forget that, on this trip, you packed the e-reader and an external battery! Get in the habit of saying “six things, three bins” to yourself so you remember. While officially your chargers shouldn’t need to come out of your bag, it’s often my experience that a nest of charging cable wires stuffed into the bottom of a suitcase piques the interest of security screeners. As a result, I always pull those out as well — and I pack them in their own little packing cube in my carry-on so that it’s easier.
If you’re going through one of those “raise your arms and stand still” machines, take off any superfluous layers of clothing: the way these work means that a multiple layers can flag as “areas of interest” that require a pat down. If you have anything out of the ordinary — a replacement knee, say, or are using a cast or brace — make sure you mention it before going into the screener, because you may need a pat down regardless.
Lastly, if you’re a regular flyer, you may find that fast track services or programmes are a benefit. An increasing number of airlines, especially low cost carriers, offer these for a fee. “Many passengers choose to utilise programs which expedite their time spent in security lines, including TSA PreCheck and CLEAR (services which are available at both Dulles International and Reagan National for domestic and some international passengers) and Global Entry and Mobile Passport, which expedite re-entry into the country following an international flight,” Christina Saull from Washington DC’s airports says.
John Walton is an international aviation journalist, follow him @thatjohn.