As of January 1, 2003, TSA began screening 100% of checked baggage at all 429 commercial airports across the United States. You will encounter one of the processes described below at the airport. Please be aware that you will not be able to access your bags after they are screened no matter which process you encounter. Therefore, you should remove everything that you want to take on the plane with you before you hand over your checked bag for screening.
Checked Bag Screening Processes
No change -- You check in at the ticket counter or with the skycaps as you have in the past. The new screening equipment will be out of your view and the screening of your checked baggage will occur behind the scenes.
Ticket counter first -- You will still check-in at the ticket counter or with the skycap as you have in the past, but you will next proceed to a new baggage screening area nearby. At most airports, you will next take your checked bag to the checked baggage screening area, where it will be screened there and afterwards delivered directly to your airline for loading. At some airports, someone will take your checked baggage from you at the ticket counter and deliver it to the screening area. In a growing number of airports, you will have the option to drop off your bags at the screening area and proceed directly to your gate without waiting for your bags to be screened.
Baggage screening first -- You will go first to the checked baggage screening area in the airport lobby. After baggage screening, the screener will direct you to the ticket counter and an authorized person will bring your bag from the screening area to the ticket counter for you to complete the check-in process.
Please watch for signs and other instructions that will direct you to the correct line. Unless you see signs directing you otherwise, go to the ticket counter to check-in with your airline.
Several methods are being used to screen 100% of checked baggage. The most common methods that you will encounter involve electronic screening, either by an Explosives Detection System (EDS) or Explosives Trace Detection (ETD) device.
The EDS machines are the large machines that can be over 20 feet long and weigh up three tons. Your baggage will be loaded on a conveyor belt of the EDS machine by a screener for screening. If your bag requires further inspection, it may be brought to an ETD machine.
The ETD machines are much smaller machines, and are the primary machines used in many airports. When your bag is screened with an ETD machine, the screener will take a swab of your bag and then place the swab into the ETD machine for analysis.
There are other methods that may be used at airports to ensure that 100% of all bags are screened. Regardless of which system is used, all checked bags will be screened before they are loaded onto the plane.
Unlocking Checked Bags
TSA suggests that you help prevent the need to break your locks by keeping your bags unlocked. In some cases, screeners will have to open your baggage as part of the screening process. If your bag is unlocked, then TSA will simply open the bag and screen the bag. However, if the bag is locked and TSA needs to open your bag, then locks may have to be broken. You may keep your bag locked if you choose, but TSA is not liable for damage caused to locked bags that must be opened for security purposes.
If TSA screeners open your bag during the screening procedure, they will close it with a tamper evident seal and place a notice in your bag alerting you to the fact that TSA screeners opened your bag for inspection.
In the near future, TSA will provide seals at the airport for you to use to secure your bags as an alternative to locks. Until that time, you may want to consider purchasing standard "cable ties," which can be found at your local hardware store. The 4 to 5 inch variety cable ties generally work best since they are the easiest to remove at your destination and can be used to close almost every bag with zippers. If TSA needs to inspect your bag, the screeners will cut off the seal and replace it with another seal.