Answering the TSA questions you have for Thanksgiving travel

It’s easy to let your mind wander while waiting in line to go through airport security. From people watching to micromanaging logistics to improve line flow, there’s a lot that goes into queuing.

Sometimes questions arise: Why can’t I pet the TSA dog? Why don’t I show both my boarding pass and ID to the gate agent anymore? Do I have to take out my liquids to scan my bag?

TSA has made several adjustments to its process since the start of the pandemic, and this is an easy guide to answering all those questions.

That’s not a TSA at SFO

Here’s a fun fact no one asked about: At San Francisco International Airport, the people who check you and your luggage at the security lines aren’t technically a TSA. The blue-shirted officers at SFO have the acronym “CAS” on their shoulders instead of “TSA.”

The Transportation Security Administration manages checkpoint personnel and they all follow the same rules as instructed by the TSA, but these people are actually employed by Covenant Aviation Security.

CAS has a contract with SFO to supply ID checkers and bag handlers. CAS has consistently won the contract to work with SFO since TSA’s inception in 2001 after the September 11 attacks. Other airports around the country, including the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa, also contract with third-party suppliers rather than working directly with TSA.

A Covenant Aviation Security Officer verifies an ID at SFO on November 16, 2022.

A Covenant Aviation Security Officer verifies an ID at SFO on November 16, 2022.

Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE

When the Department of Homeland Security rolled out screening at airports after 9/11, there was a provision that allowed contract screeners like CAS to perform tasks under TSA oversight. Some airports have tried it, such as SFO, and have decided to keep the system.

Covenant Aviation Security personnel are hired and trained just like TSA and share the same oversight. The biggest difference is that CAS employees are not paid through TSA. And that their shoulder stripes say ‘CAS’.

Why you no longer show your boarding pass with ID

TSA calls its new Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) “a security game changer”.

The Credential Authentication Technology machine at SFO in San Francisco on November 16, 2022.

The Credential Authentication Technology machine at SFO in San Francisco on November 16, 2022.

Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE

The machine is an ID authenticator, eliminating the need to present your boarding pass and ID cards to TSA before your baggage is processed.

Prior to the pandemic, these TSA agents had to compare names and information between boarding passes and IDs, which could lead to errors. Over the past few years, TSA has developed its technology and the CAT machine simplifies the whole process.

All you need to do now is have your photo ID or passport scanned by the officer. CAT is linked to the Secure Flight database, which confirms a traveler’s flight information within a 24-hour period to ensure that the traveler has a ticket to travel that day.

Scanning takes a few seconds. In case there is a false ID or problem with the traveler, a high-pitched sound alerts the officer.

When should you keep electronics and liquids in the bag?

Another technological upgrade instituted by the TSA is the computed tomography (CT) used to scan luggage.

Historically, the machines created a 2D x-ray of the contents of the carry-on bag. These machines are still active, but TSA has begun rolling out 300 Smiths Detection machines — which look like large Apple iPhone wall chargers — capable of taking 3D X-rays. Both SFO and Oakland International Airport use the technology.

An SFO officer checks hand luggage at SFO on November 16, 2022

An SFO officer checks hand luggage at SFO on November 16, 2022

Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE

The new computed tomography machines will allow TSA agents to generate a 3D image of the luggage and contents. This allows them to manipulate the image and improve their reading of the content. Essentially, the 2D machines provide visibility, while the 3D machines provide enhanced visibility.

“It’s not about speed, it’s about what they can see,” said Lorie Dankers, spokesperson for the TSA.

The most exciting feature of these new machines is that when a carry-on bag is screened through the CT scanner, travelers are allowed to leave anything in their carry-on bag. That means keeping your cell phone-sized electronics and travel-sized liquids in your bag instead of taking them out.

The Smiths Detection machines are connected to automated screening lanes, which streamline the process of placing your bags on the scanning belt. TSA’s roles are slowly automating.

As seen at European airports such as Amsterdam, these lanes should eliminate the need for a TSA officer to return trash cans after they’ve been rolled to the other side. The machine is self-sufficient and automatically returns them to new travelers.



Travelers walk into one of six separate areas where they are provided with large white bins to store all their belongings. Bags and luggage cannot roll on the conveyor belt and must be placed in a bin. The bins are coded so that if a TSA officer detects something, another officer can easily pull the bin and find the exact part in the bag that led to the alert.

Short staff means long delays

TSA echoes a sentiment heard from companies across the country: Hiring new employees is a challenge.

“People don’t want to work,” says Kevin Sprouse, the assistant federal security director of screening for TSA. “We’re struggling a bit to meet operational needs.”

A traveler goes through screening at SFO on November 16, 2022

A traveler goes through screening at SFO on November 16, 2022

Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE

On a national level, TSA is actively recruiting new employees. Dankers said they raised the salary between $1,000 and $5,000 to lure new employees. At Denver International Airport, which is struggling to find employees, that salary increase equates to earning about $55,000 a year.

At Oakland International Airport on the Thursday night a week before Thanksgiving, the security line moved at a snail’s pace as a TSA officer learned the ropes of baggage scanning. One bag at a time.

Oddly enough, the intern learned how to operate the 2D computed tomography, which would one day become obsolete as 3D technology continues to roll out.

A traveler searches for his bag at the Automated Screening Lanes at SFO in San Francisco on November 16, 2022.

A traveler searches for his bag at the Automated Screening Lanes at SFO in San Francisco on November 16, 2022.

Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE

Disgruntled passengers complained about the wait at OAK, and another TSA officer explained to SFGATE that he believed the problem was due to a lack of occupied management positions.

Don’t touch the bomb-sniffing dogs

Mala the dog finds evidence of explosives while working at SFO every day – though rarely from bad actors.

The dog is the first line of defense at the airport, and to keep her snout sharp, her handlers plant a piece of explosive material on herself so she can find it.

When Mala detects the materials, she is trained not to address or jump on the person, but to deliberately follow them so that her handler knows to pull that person aside without making a scene.

TSA says this routine is often so flawless that the average passenger may never realize that a bomb threat was neutralized right in front of them.

Mala works with her handler Lexi at SFO in San Francisco on November 16, 2022.

Mala works with her handler Lexi at SFO in San Francisco on November 16, 2022.

Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE

As a treat after successfully detecting the decoy, Mala gets to chew on a lime green tennis ball. She is rewarded with affection – which is why TSA asks travelers not to pet the dogs, so as not to distract them or mess up their reward system.

The TSA’s canine division has 350 dogs that are regularly passed from airports to major events like the Super Bowl or the Pride Parade in San Francisco. Whenever an airport expects an increase in travelers, TSA sends canine reinforcements. Three dogs were sent to SFO ahead of Thanksgiving rush this year.

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