Why TSA Rules Vary From Airport to Airport

It has nothing to do with whether your TSA agent is feeling lazy that day. The security protocol at any given airport comes down to how up-to-date the technology is.
The Miami airport has a 3D scanner.
The Miami airport has a 3D scanner. / Joe Raedle/GettyImages

Shoes on or off? Laptop in a separate bin or left in your bag? ID and boarding pass, or just ID? It can often feel like the answers to these questions are subject to the whims of whatever TSA officer happens to be ushering you through airport security that day. That’s a pretty strange lack of consistency from an organization whose whole brand is strictness in the name of safety—not to mention that it slows down the process for all travelers, from first-time to frequent fliers, who have no way of knowing the rules until someone’s shouting them over the clatter of bins.

So what’s the source of the confusion?

According to Thrillist, it all comes down to technology. “TSA has standard operating procedures across the country depending on what equipment is at the local checkpoint, which is why it is very important for travelers to pay attention to the guidance that the TSA officers are providing at a checkpoint,” TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein told Thrillist. “Our screening procedures are the same, but the technology available at airports may differ somewhat.”

In other words, the TSA is checking you and all your stuff no matter what airport you’re flying out of—but how they’re checking it depends on what resources each airport has. Some airports, for example, now have machines that can certify your flight data using just your ID; at those that don’t, TSA agents still have to ask for your boarding pass. And some airports have high-tech 3D scanners that make it easy for agents to see what’s inside your bag, electronics included. If they’re working with the older X-ray scanners, though, you’ll be asked to remove your electronics.

Dogs are sometimes involved, too. According to Farbstein, if you’ve already been “screened by a passenger screening canine while […] in a checkpoint line,” you don’t have to take your shoes off. (Anyone ages 12 and under and 75 and older can keep their shoes on no matter what.)

As for why the equipment isn’t standardized across the country, per The Wall Street Journal, it’s basically a budget issue. When the TSA commits to using a new piece of tech, it doesn’t have the money to purchase and implement it everywhere at once. So agents just have to do their best to make it as clear as possible—at all hours of every day to every single traveler—what needs to happen. And you just have to do your best to listen.

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