I recently took a domestic flight out of Halifax Stanfield International Airport and experienced Canada’s version of enhanced airport security screening. I’ll discuss the details below, but I believe that the process was very similar to the extra screening that you get through the Secondary Security Screening Selection (or SSSS) in the United States.
How I Was Selected for Extra Screening
When I fly, I generally carry a backpack that contains my laptop, toiletries, some clothes and a few other items that vary from trip to trip. This flight was no different, and I dutifully went through the security screening routine: emptying my pockets, taking my bag of liquids out of my backpack, putting my laptop on a separate tray and going through the body scanner. For domestic and international flights departing from Canada, passengers are typically not required to remove their shoes when going through airport security.
After going through the body scanner, I watched as the tray with my laptop was diverted for additional screening. This meant that I would have to wait for a Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) screening officer to come look at my laptop. After about a minute, I was called over and the officer advised me that he would simply have to swab the laptop.
The swab is used for what is known as explosive trace detection. A swab is taken from a surface – in this case my laptop – and put into a machine, which can detect trace amounts of explosives. Unfortunately, it can also generate false positives because some of the materials and chemicals that it tests for can be found in things that aren’t explosives. As the officer later explained to me, gasoline and certain other chemicals can set the machine off. I watched as the machine started beeping and a red screen appeared.
The officer explained to me that my belongings and I would have to be re-screened. I soon learned that I was about to undergo SSSS-style screening. To provide a bit of context, SSSS is something that gets printed on your boarding pass and leads to you having to go through additional airport security screening. The process can vary from case to case, but it typically involves things like a full body pat down, being swabbed for explosives and an extensive bag search. My enhanced screening wasn’t something that I was subjected to because it was printed on my boarding pass though, which is why I can’t say that it was the direct equivalent of SSSS – although there was a hint that it was very similar, as I’ll talk about later. On a side note, you can actually have SSSS printed on your boarding pass when departing from Canadian airports, but only when flying to the United States.
The Enhanced Airport Security Screening Process
Firstly, all my belongings had to go through the x-ray machine again. I had already put everything back in my pockets and backpack, except for my laptop of course. I therefore had to put everything back in a tray and the officer added in a plastic plaque with the letters SSSS on it – that was my big hint that this was going to be very similar to what SSSS screening on US-bound flights would be like.
A supervisor came by to assist the officer and had a questionnaire to fill out. It consisted of a few simple questions, including my occupation and whether or not I had come into contact with any explosives or other chemicals recently. They then swabbed my hands, belt area and shoes – thankfully this swab did not set the machine off. I also received a full body pat-down.
The officer then conducted a search of everything I had put in the tray. He took everything out of my backpack, opened every pouch and looked in every compartment. My laptop turned on when he opened it, but I suspect I would have been asked to turn it on if it hadn’t turned on automatically. With all that being completed, the officer gave me the tray and advised me that I was good to go.
Despite the inconvenience of the whole situation, my entire security experience only took about ten minutes. That being said, the security area was almost empty when we entered it and there was no wait. In true Canadian fashion, both officers were very friendly and professional throughout the entire process.
You can be selected for enhanced security screening when flying out of any airport in the world. In Canada, there is a process very similar to the SSSS screening process found in the United States. When bound for the United States, you can have SSSS printed on your boarding pass.
While my experience was relatively quick, I have seen long lines to see a screening officer at Canadian Airports when a tray is selected for extra screening after going through the x-ray machine. I waited for less than a minute, but had there been more people there, I could have been in the security area for much longer. This is one of the reasons that it is important to arrive early at the airport to give yourself enough time to make your flight even if you run into unexpected delays along the way like I did.