Did you know that how you pack your luggage can really impact whether TSA opens it to look inside or not? In fact, it’s possible to pack it in such a way that it is (almost) guaranteed to be cleared automatically without security needing to physically open the bag. Let’s look at how to do it.
Worked Briefly For TSA
Before I get started I should let you know that I worked for TSA for about 6 months. I was exclusively back behind the scenes screening checked luggage in one of our nation’s international airports. So I’ve seen first hand how luggage gets flagged for additional screening that requires people to physically open bags and dig around inside them.
Keep in mind that I never worked with passenger screening. There are different issues in play with carry-on luggage than what I’ll be talking about here.
Understand What TSA Is Looking For
With checked luggage, passengers won’t have access to it between the time they check it and they retrieve it after their flight. That reduces the theoretical threats down to one major potential issue when it comes to a terrorist threat: bombs.
So their main concern is making sure there are no bombs, or what are called Improvised Explosive Devises (IED’s) in your luggage. Because of that, we need to cover a little basic info about bombs to help us understand how to better pack our luggage.
3 IED Components
It turns out that there are three components needed for any IED:
Triggering mechanism – This is what sets off the bomb. There are lots of ways to go about it from what I understand. It could be a timer, or something pressure sensitive, or via some remote radio signal, etc. The key thing we need to know is that triggering mechanisms are generally electronic.
Detonator – A detonator is a usually small amount of highly volatile explosive material that is easily lit off and provides the boost to detonate the main explosive charge.
The main explosive itself – The main explosive is some compound that is relatively stable so that it can be transported in high enough quantities to cause a significant explosion when ignited by a detonator. Explosives come in a variety of different materials and densities from liquids through to solids.
Because all three of these things need to be present in a bomb, we can use this info to pack our luggage so that it is obviously not a danger and is more quickly screened and cleared by TSA.
How’s The X-Ray Look?
The primary luggage screening tool typically is some sort of x-ray machine. So when we pack luggage we should think about it in terms of how the stuff we are packing might look to an x-ray machine.
That means when I talk about “how things look” here, I mean how do they appear when viewed with some type of x-ray machine.
Here are some common suitcase items that could potentially be seen as triggering device components:
- Personal electronics
- Hair driers
- Curling Irons
- Electric Razors
- Connecting cables and wires
- Battery chargers
Basically when it comes to triggering mechanisms and their components we’re talking about anything that is electronic or electrical.
Explosive Material Look-a-likes
There are a lot of things that often get packed in our suitcases that have similar densities to potential explosive materials. Here are some of the more common items we’re talking about:
- Shoes (especially shoe soles)
- Hair care products
- Paper reports
- Food stuffs (like peanut butter for example)
The list is pretty long, so I’ve just included some of the more obvious ones. Basically we’re talking about anything that has a density of a liquid, gel, paper or soft plastic.
If there is nothing in our suitcase that could be a component of a trigger that is right next to or physically touching anything that might be the same consistency of a potential explosive then our bag can usually be cleared automatically by one of the TSA machines without needing to be opened up by one of the TSA employees.
The key is to pack your suitcase in such a way that we keep anything that might appear to be a triggering device physically separated from anything that might be mistaken for explosive material. That means we need to keep some distance in our luggage between our consumer electronics and electrical devices and any of those things which has a similar density to potential explosives.
Fortunately we can use our clothes to pack in between them and provide that physical separation. In the TSA screening machines clothes are obviously not either component so you can use your clothes to provide the physical separation you want to expedite the screening process.
How I Pack Luggage
So here’s how I pack my suitcase. Because the “potential explosive look-a-likes” tend to be heavier I pack all of those things near the bottom of my suitcase closer to the wheels.
That means I put any books, all my toiletries, all shoes and any souvenir food items at the bottom. Then I pack my clothes on top of them. Lastly I put any electronics and electrical stuff that are going in my checked bags on top of the clothes.
That way my clothes create a physical “barrier” that separates the two major potential components from each other. As a result, I can’t tell you the last time my bags were physically opened by an inspector when I was flying somewhere.
This approach will dramatically reduce the likelihood of TSA needing to open your bag. However they still do random checks and nothing will guarantee they won’t decide to open and physically inspect your bag.
Another thing to keep in mind is that sometimes we pack things in our checked bags that block x-rays for a significant volume of the suitcase. For example, lead crystal vases and awards can cause massive scattering on x-ray machines.
If that happens and they can’t see inside your bag easily with their screening machines, then the TSA will open the bag to inspect its contents anyway. They want to make sure that bad guys don’t try to shield anything malicious inside something that blocks x-rays.
The bottom line is that if you take this packing advice to heart you will greatly reduce the need for TSA to open your bag and look inside. You’ll also be helping the TSA out too because they’ll be able to clear your bags more easily so they can focus more on real potential threats.