11 tips for taking the stress out of airport security

Airport Security. Yep. Photo credit.

I hate being late. Hate. And the thought of being late for a flight? The pinnacle of things that stress me out. So imagine my anxiety today when I was detained by Transportation Security Administration officers (TSOs) because my clothing apparently tested positive for explosive materials. Yep, me. A frequent flier who is on her fifth airplane in 10 days. 

Having just tolerated a full body pat-down, I was told I needed another one, in private and with more attention to my “sensitive areas” (aka the officer would use her palms over my breasts, buttocks and groin, instead of the back of her hands). Oh and all of my luggage would be swabbed and tested for explosives, too. All this and with 25 minutes until my 6 a.m. flight.

Although I wanted to SCREAM, I kept my cool. I expressed displeasure civilly, proceeded through the extra screening and made it to my flight right as boarding started. Phew.

Having spent the last several years flying and researching communication in airport security, I have a lot of knowledge about security and empathy for TSOs, but that didn’t stop me from feeling SO stressed out. I know it’s got to be infinitely more difficult for folks who don’t fly often. 

In fact, for many people, one of the most stressful parts of air travel is dealing with security. As most people fly less than two round trips per year*, it’s hard to keep up with changing rules and procedures. And the process of security–with structured lines, advanced imaging technology, and authoritative officers decked out in police-esque uniforms–is designed to be intimidating. 

It doesn’t help that most media portrayals of airport security play up the negative. Reports that get the most coverage feature horror stories of inappropriate pat-downs or poor treatment of children, the elderly, and injured veterans. Pop culture’s had a field day, too, with Saturday Night Live and South Park positioning the TSA and its officers as idiotic and sexually depraved. Stereotypes of officers abound–that they’re aggressive, despotic, stupid, lazy, etc. etc. So it’s not surprising that some passengers come to the airport ready for confrontation and stress.

In my academic work, I liken that emotional energy to financial taxes. In essence, to get through security, passengers pay “emotional taxes” whether that is swallowing frustration, burying fear, or suppressing anxiety. Depending upon communication with TSOs, those taxes can be like small bridge tolls–no big deal–or huge like paying bribes to cross borders.

But, thanks to several years of systematic research including interviews with TSOs and passengers, hundreds of trips through security, and lots and lots of observation, I’ve got 11 tips for reducing stress and improving interactions with TSOs in airport security.

1. Know the rules. A no-duh tip if ever there was, but you’d be surprised how often I see people come to the airport with giant bottles of shampoo or act startled that they have to take shoes off. For better or worse, TSOs get really frustrated when passengers aren’t prepared. So do yourself a favor: sneak a peek at www.tsa.gov and get familiar with the security process. 

2. Do yourself favors. Be familiar with security processes. Wear slip on shoes. Keep your ID and boarding pass in a handy place. Anticipating next steps can go a long way in reducing your stress and the potential for negative interactions with TSOs.

3. Dress up a bit. TSOs tend to gauge passengers according to how they dress. When I’m dressed like a business traveler, I’m treated better than when I’m dressed down and TSOs assume I don’t know the rules as well.

4. Envision a smooth security process. Frequent business travelers often describe less stress in security than casual travelers. One reason is that they’ve been through it a bunch and have a frame of reference for future experiences. For folks who don’t fly often, visualizing a successful process can help reduce stress. Again, know the basic process of security and understand that most security experiences are low-key. I swear.

5. Make peace with uncertainty. A pervasive emotion in security lines is uncertainty–will the line suddenly stop moving? Will I be detained? What if I don’t make it through? What if the TSO is a big jerk? Yeah, you can’t control any of that. And ruminating on those questions won’t help anyone. Not matter how much you try, willing the line to move faster doesn’t work. So relax. And if you’re running super late, ask people if you can cut in line. I haven’t seen anyone say no yet.

6. Cultivate community. Many passengers act super self-focused and competitive in the airport. (If you don’t believe me, take a gander at boarding lines and the I-need-to-get-on-the-plane-right-this-minute behaviors.) In security, this means that passengers can miss opportunities to meet “nice” TSOs, engage with fellow passengers and offer/receive assistance. I try to view security as a “we’re all in this together” type of experience and make small talk and offer help for new travelers or parents with no free arms, etc. It may sound Pollyanna-ish, but small acts of kindness and civility work wonders.

7. Don’t take that stern TSO face personally. TSOs are taught to strictly control their emotions. When TSOs appear impassive or alternatively, stern or authoritative, know that it is by design. TSOs go through training to manage their emotions. Specifically they are taught to portray a “commanding” presence in order to connote authority, and also remain “calm, cool, and collected” as they interact with passengers. In part, this is meant to keep passengers calm and prevent emotional situations from escalating. However, it also results in passengers describing TSOs as “robots” or “machines,” presumably without feelings. So if you notice a sea of grumpy TSO faces, know that isn’t you.

8. Recognize that TSOs don’t make the rules! A constant refrain from TSOs is: “I don’t make the rules.” As the public face of TSA policy, TSOs are in fact vastly removed from the decision making body that develops policies which includes TSA administration, Department of Homeland Security officials, and members of Congress. It’s not uncommon for passengers to take out their rule-related frustrations on TSOs who only enact, not create, policies. This accomplishes little except generating negative feelings for both parties and in some instances, can result in “punishment” from TSOs such as real slow screenings and delays. While much passenger hostility is contained to minor insults and indignation, sometimes the antagonism can escalate to aggression as was the case with a November 2013 shooting at Los Angeles International Airport, where one TSO was killed and two others injured by a man disgruntled with TSA policy. So if you want to complain, see tip #11 below.

9. Know that “The rules” constrain TSOs as much, if not more, than passengers. While some TSOs definitely do take ownership of “the rules” (and occasionally enforce them with impunity!), many TSOs discuss rules and regulations as personally difficult and constraining. Under constant surveillance from several levels of management (depending upon the size of the airport), coworkers, and even passengers, TSOs can face punishment for not upholding rules to the letter. As a result, some TSOs discuss feeling pressure to both perform their jobs well and also accommodate passengers to the best of their abilities, even when they could otherwise get in trouble.

10. Don’t forget, TSOs are people, too. So often, passengers view TSOs as extensions of their employer, forgetting that under the blue shirts and brass badges are human beings. More often than not, TSOs describe their jobs not as a civic duty or an opportunity to punish passengers, but as a mechanism to “put food on the table,” take care of their children, and pay rent. TSOs get scant kindness from passengers so remember that Golden Rule and be nice, people. (It also helps to remember that TSOs see THOUSANDS of people everyday with various levels of hygiene and humanity, ahem. So if you can be kind, do it.)


11. Complain constructively. Okay, so all this being said, you might still have an unfortunate experience in security. Over the years, I’ve had a handful. But up until today, I’ve kept my complaining limited to Facebook and Twitter which, while cathartic, doesn’t help anyone else. However, my research demonstrates that TSA policy DOES change, in part as a result of passenger complaints and issues. So, talk to a manager, go online and file a formal complaint with the TSA (like I did today!), and if you’ve got a real beef, contact your local government representative person. Seriously. 

I couldn’t cover everything here, but I’d be happy to answer questions… leave a comment below or email bluestmuse(at)gmail(dot)com


* This post is based in large part on my dissertation: “How discourses cast airport security characters: A discourse tracing and qualitative analysis of identity and emotional performances” and my first academic publication “How lines organize compulsory interaction, emotion management, and “emotional taxes” The implications of passenger emotion and expression in airport security lines. Management Communication Quarterly27(1), 121-149.” If you feel like some light reading, you can find the dissertation here: http://repository.asu.edu/items/18077  and the article by clicking here.

Day 14- Cliteracy

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