You Might Get Flagged By TSA For Doing This Involuntary Reflex

If you're going through the TSA checkpoint after a late night or an early morning, you might find yourself unable to stifle some big yawns. But be careful, excessive yawning can be a flag for TSA agents. You may tend to only worry about things like whether you have too much or too many liquids when you go through security. While some items are exempt from TSA's 311 rule, this is always a hassle if you get it wrong. Now you can add yawning to the list of airport security mistakes that could be slowing you down. Here's what we know about why the government would be concerned about something so seemingly innocuous. 


TSA officers are on the lookout for contraband and illegal items in your luggage and on your person, and they're also on the lookout for dangerous people. People with criminal intent in an airport would likely be at least somewhat anxious, and yawning more than usual just so happens to be an involuntary reflex when you're stressed or worried.

Yawning is just one potential behavioral red flag

In 2015, The Intercept was able to get information on what TSA agents were instructed to look for when it comes to potentially suspicious people at the airports. The checklist included "exaggerated yawning" along with several other factors like "strong body odor," "whistling as the individual approaches the screening process," and a "cold penetrating stare."


This checklist was part of a method that was initially called "Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques" aka SPOT. It got updated to "Behavior Detection and Analysis" (BDA), and it faced a fair amount of controversy when it was revealed. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) even sued the TSA to get additional details on the program, and they've argued the program doesn't have a scientific basis and can result in racial discrimination in the screening process. Over the years, the TSA has continued to rework and refine its security protocols, including behavior analysis, though much of that is somewhat understandably kept under wraps.

Yawning by itself shouldn't get much of a TSA response

The TSA's argument for the use of programs like SPOT and BDA is that they can help find high-risk travelers. In-airport analysis of body language and unconscious behavior — like yawning — could be (or perhaps already is) performed by algorithms and artificial intelligence to try and avoid human bias. If you're a nervous flier, don't worry if you catch yourself yawning. It's worth just one point on the list of suspicious behaviors, and you have to get to four points or more for additional screening. In other words, you would have to exhibit some other allegedly sketchy behaviors to be pulled out of line.


That doesn't mean that no yawning means no TSA scrutiny; you could still get extra screening. This is guaranteed if you have "SSSS" on your boarding pass, which stands for "Secondary Security Screening Selection." You'll get a longer, more thorough security experience, including a patdown and an extra search through your bag. So, while it could be boring watching a TSA agent go through your bag, maybe try not to yawn.