I would assume TSA (Transportation Security Administration) security to be especially tight no matter the airport, but it seems that the different airports I have been to have often very different policies.

For example, I went to OAK (Oakland International), but security was very very lax. For example, shoes stayed on the entire time, electronics did not need to be taken out of the backpacks, belts and wallets did not need to come out. No full body scanners were in place, only metal detectors and the usual bag screening.

However, IAD (Washington Dulles) and SFO (San Franciso International) were much more stringent, requiring full body scanners, shoes and metal objects going in containers, etc.

Is there a reason that these security protocols vary so widely in different airports?

To note, I flew domestic on each flight. This "data" was composed out of 3 trips leaving from OAK, then flying back. Security protocols remained the same flying

  • I think it comes down to the passenger flow they get. Extra security costs more, so probably only really cost effective in major airports getting more passengers.
    – Vagish
    Aug 17, 2014 at 22:43

2 Answers 2


There are 67,000 people in the TSA, and an increasing number of airports that opt for privatized security companies to do the job instead, so some variance will be inevitable. In your particular case, it sounds like either you've been going through the TSA Precheck line at OAK, or they're confused/lazy/running a quiet trial and applying the Precheck rules to all passengers:

TSA Precheck allows passengers who have been pre-approved to keep on their shoes and belt, not remove their jackets, keep their laptops inside their cases, and not have to remove select liquids and gels from their bags.

Full-body scanners are not mandatory and are in fact being removed now from all airports because (shh) they didn't work.

  • Have never used or plan to use TSA pre screening, didn't know about full body scanners, thanks
    – yuritsuki
    Aug 18, 2014 at 3:17
  • 5
    Only the backscatter machined were removed; millimeter wave full body scanners are still there.
    – user4188
    Aug 18, 2014 at 6:10
  • @thinlyveiledquestionmark they may do the prescreening anyway, whether you asked for it or not.
    – jwenting
    Aug 18, 2014 at 6:36
  • (+1) It's still kind of surprising, though. For example, I was asked to take my laptop and liquids out every single time in many European airports across a range of countries in the last few years. The TSA is a single organization in a single country and yet it seems to be even less consistent.
    – Relaxed
    Aug 18, 2014 at 16:12
  • I flew out of IAH last week and they randomly pulled me out of the body scanner line to go through the old metal detector, I didn't have precheck and the line was not that long so I don't know what the reason was.
    – Aidan
    Apr 26, 2019 at 15:44

In a word, money. And to some extent, people.

Everything costs. Some airports have had scares in the past and will allocate more money to TSA procedures. Some changes, like the Global Entry Pass, have improved some things and will cost additional money.

Let's say the TSA has decided some new fancy scanner is the latest and greatest bomb detector. Can every airport afford to buy it? Even if the city or government pays for it (I'm not sure who does), people have to be trained to use it. And some of that technology is pretty modern - no longer are we checking people's bags for water bottles, it's now determining whether power packs for charging cellphones might or might not be potentially explosive batteries. When SSD harddrives became mainstream, iyt required more training as staff had been told to look for moving parts in laptops' harddrives, and now there aren't any.

There's also limits in staff numbers - they all cost. So at certain times at certain airports you're far more likely to be selected for gunpowder residue screening. Why? The guy's job is to check a person, and when that's done, look up and pick the next person. At peak times, 50 people may have walked past him in that time. He can't check them all. However at quieter times, or in a smaller airport, the traffic of passengers is lower and he can check a greater percentage.

Same applies with drug/fruit-sniffing dogs. They get tired, require training, and can only be on the floor for a given period of time and check a limited number of bags.

So in a few words perhaps: money, time, and people.

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