How to zip your laptop through TSA security

Checkpoint-friendly laptop bags make air travel easier

My trusty Hewlett-Packard Pavilion zd7000 laptop has traveled with me to Tokyo, Las Vegas and Oxon Hill, Md. It's survived recessions, viruses and low-carb diets when I got pork rind crumbs stuck in its keyboard. And it’s been a champ through it all, booting right up each time like it was brand-new.

The problem is that it weighs almost 10 pounds. When I would run through an airport to catch a plane, the Pavilion was great for my biceps but bad for my disposition. Every trip, I dreaded having to pass it for inspection through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint. I hated that awkward moment of fumbling with my laptop and tying my shoes while trying to hold onto my passport and boarding pass. I looked so panicky that I worried I was going to call attention to myself and get singled out for further TSA scrutiny.

So on my last few trips, I checked the Pavilion in with my luggage. But even then, TSA always inspected my luggage and left me a little note about it. The security agents probably suspected I was smuggling cement shoes. I’ve come to expect the friendly note from TSA like a mint on my hotel pillow, a little reminder that I’m away from home. Nice that the notes don’t say anything like, “Why don’t you spring for an iPad or at least a netbook? It’s not 2002, you know.”

For me, laptops and airport security have been a difficult mix. I’ve resigned myself to reading actual books on airplanes. But plenty of federal employees and frequent travelers rely on getting laptops through airport security and doing work on the plane.

Will Winton, a digital product manager at GCN Lab parent company 1105 Media, shared his experience with getting his laptop through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.

Winton had been using an old 1950s-style briefcase for his laptop. When you open it up, you put the laptop in the bottom half and secure it with Velcro straps. The top half had lots of pockets for personal digital assistants, disks, power cords, cables and so forth.

The problem was that the top half blocked TSA’s X-ray machines. So TSA officials would require him to open the briefcase, drag out the laptop and place it on the conveyor belt. The Velcro straps wore out from having to be fastened and unfastened so much.

Winton decided to invest $40 in a Solo CheckFast laptop bag from eBags.com. You unzip the bag and place it butterfly style on the TSA conveyor belt. The laptop is tucked safely into a pouch that’s X-ray machine-friendly. His laptop passed through security at both airports, “no questions asked,” Winton said. It saved him that extra step of having to unpack and pack his laptop in his mad dash to the gate.

If you're “a fed who has to do a lot of traveling, you need one of these,” Winton said.

Although it doesn’t endorse specific bag makers or models, TSA does list its laptop bag guidelines on its Web site.

But how about you? What has been your experience with getting laptops and other gadgets through airport security? Share a comment with us about your traveling experiences in the comment box below.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

Reader Comments

Tue, May 18, 2010 RP

I often have problems at airports. Not sure why, but I'm always pulled aside for secondary screening. My favorite experience was in 2004 when I got kicked out of the security line when I was going through DCA with my government laptop. I was fine until they took my laptop to another room out of my site to check it out. The government laptop is NOT suppose to leave my site at any time and I quickly let the guards know that this was unacceptable. Instead of bringing my laptop back, they moved me to another area for "additional screening." Still not able to see where my laptop was, I continued to explain that I needed to be near my laptop at all times. Being feds themselves, I would think the TSA screeners would understand. At that point, one guard came over and without explanation picked up my bag and threw it (yes actually threw it) outside the screening area. I then ran over to my bag, that now had a broken handle. I still had not been returned my laptop and at this point had no idea where it was. I ran back up to the screening area and was stopped by an officer and told that I could not come back to the screening area. At that point I raised my voice quite a bit and very forcefully told him that I was not leaving until I received my laptop. I waited outside the area for several minutes until a young man brought me my laptop. I then got back into the security line, waited and then insisted on a different set of screeners. They obliged the second time and kept my laptop within site while they turned it on (although they couldn't get past the first screen because they didn't have the necessary credentials to actually sign on to the laptop). They then asked me to sign on, which I did and then they let me go. I asked for this incident to be reported but was told that I had to go to the DOT headquarters downtown DC in order to do that. I called TSA customer service the following day and reported the incident. They were apologetic and even offered to replace the broken laptop bag.

Fri, May 14, 2010 Joe DC

Mac Book Air and sleeve from Vaja cases. The MBA doesn't even need to come out of the sleeve. Just slap it on the belt and it sails through without difficulty. Oh, and it only weighs 3 pounds. Did I mention that?

Thu, May 13, 2010 Vern Edwards

Buy a MacBook Air. I've been carrying one for more than a year. It is more than adequate and I don't need a laptop bag. My MacBook Air fits in my briefcase. You're probably carrying more stuff than you need anyway. See George Clooney's tips in "Up In The Air." There is no way that I'd carry a full-sized laptop again. Stone age.

Thu, May 13, 2010 Charles Wade Washington, DC

You are really brave to check anything electronic in your bags. Someone took my Blackberry when I checked it 2 years ago. It was a very expensive lesson for me as it was my work Blackberry and I had to pay to replace it.

Wed, May 12, 2010 David Penney Scott AFB, IL

My favorite "Airport Security" story occured in the late 1980's in Saudi Arabia. I was returning from a visit to a a long range remote radar site construction site in the company of a USAF Major. The Major had his "portable" computer with him which he had used to make notes on the construction progress. At the airport the Airport Security Police refused to let him take his computer in the cabin area and insisted that he bring it aboard as checked baggage. The Major was reluctant to intrust his delicate computer to care of the Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) baggage handlers and a heated discussion ensued. The Captain of our Saudia flight intervened and offered to keep the computer in his custody for the duration of the flight thus ending the debate and allowing the Airport Security Police officer to "save face". On the walk across the tarmac to the airplane when we were out of site of the terminal the Captain quietly returned the computer to the Major.

Show All Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above