By Molly Ramsdell

We have all heard the stories about individuals at airports being “searched” in an inappropriate manner at the security checkpoint or taken into a back room and detained for an exorbitant amount of time. Does this actually happen?

Well, in order to answer that question, (do any of you watch "MythBusters"??) a few of us from the NCSL Washington, D.C., office headed to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to learn more about the process. And yes, the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) knew we were coming.

So let me break down the process. I show up at the airport without any federally accepted identification for boarding a plane and head to security. When I tell the TSA agent that I don’t have the appropriate ID, what happens next is a story of SOP (standard operating procedures). This term was used a lot.

A TSA supervisor is called who will take me aside (right there and not in some back room) to obtain information from me to assist them in establishing my identity. This includes things like full legal name, Social Security number and address. Once an appropriate amount of information is obtained, the supervisor goes back to his or her office, which is located just through security (they leave me outside security), and conduct an identity verification check.

The identity verification process usually takes about 15 minutes. However, keeping in mind that there are more than 400 airports as well as other federal agencies requesting identity verification checks, the process could take longer.  Assuming they confirm my identity, I now proceed like normal through the advanced imaging technology (the machine that spins around you) or the metal detector and then will be subject to a full secondary screening. This means that any bags I am carrying on will be opened and checked, my electronics and carry-on liquids will be further screened and I will receive a full body pat down by an individual of the same sex.

Where does all of this happen? Right there in the screening area, unless I request a private location. I’m guessing a number of us have already been the subject of  a partial secondary screening when an item in our carry-on luggage looks suspicious when going through the x-ray machine and requires investigation. It’s very similar. If I have no carry-ons because I checked my luggage, it’s just a pat down.

Once finished, I am free to proceed to the gate. No secret rooms, no inappropriate searches, just a few extra steps. So there you have it. We’ve busted the myth regarding showing up at an airport without ID and the so-called secondary screening.  From my viewpoint, it’s SOP and a job well done by TSA.

Molly Ramsdell is the director of NCSL's Washington, D.C., office.

Email Molly.



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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.


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