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First class or coach, travelers can earn this inconvenient designation on any flight, international or domestic.

Ah, the dreaded SSSS.

As much as you want those four letters on your airplane boarding pass to mean that you’ve been admitted into the Super-Secret Swingers’ Society or that you’ve won a half-pint of Samuel’s Savory Salmon Schmear, they mean something much different: Secondary Security Screening Selection

The four letters also mean you’re about to spend a whole lot more time than you’d hoped at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint.

According to TSA spokesman Michael McCarthy, SSSS appears on a passenger’s boarding pass when he or she has been selected by the agency’s Secure Flight system for enhanced security screening. Secure Flight is a risk-based passenger prescreening program that improves security by identifying low- and high-risk passengers before they arrive at the airport. The program does this by matching passengers’ names against trusted traveler lists and watchlists.

“TSA always incorporates random and unpredictable measures into its procedures that may result in a passenger receiving an SSSS designation for a single flight,” McCarthy wrote in an email.

To protect privacy, the Secure Flight program collects the minimum amount of personal information—full name, date of birth, and gender—necessary to conduct effective matching. It also prevents individuals on the Terrorist Watchlist, the No-Fly List, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “Do Not Board” list from boarding any aircraft. That said, the SSSS designation can attach itself to any traveler at any time, even those who are members of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency’s Trusted Traveler Programs, including Global Entry

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The system picks its SSSS winners in an instant, but those four letters will mean an extended stay with TSA agents, so prepare yourself for a more comprehensive screening process. And whatever you do, don’t Sing Slayer Songs Softly while you wait.

“SSSS” can happen to the best of us, including AFAR’s digital executive editor, Arabella Bowen.

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