Ignore those ‘keep your shoes on’ airport security ads; high heels still don’t fly

Keep your shoes on! Except, you can’t. (Identogo.com)

“Keep your shoes on,” hawks the advertisements, with the image an elegant very-high-heeled sandal there to catch the eye. The ads urge weary travels on airport security lines to sign up for expedited screening, which is said to come with this major side benefit — no walking through security on cold, hard floors in bare or stocking-ed feet.

But women who travel have learned this cold, hard truth: The ads lie. There are virtually no heels that can be worn through airport security checkpoints.  Even if you’ve paid $85 for TSA PreCheck, and even if signs all around the checkpoints happily brag, “Keep those shoes on, you busy traveler you,” and even if TSA agents invite you to keep them on….Heels must come off.

“TSA Pre still thinks my high heels are a weapon and makes me scan them. I’m afraid the X-ray machine isn’t good for them,” wrote Mollie, a frustrated traveler, during a flight from Newark to Boston earlier this week. “I always have to take them off… So much for my $100 investment,” she said to me later.

TSA PreCheck is a fairly strict process that requires travelers to pay for enrollment and visit a sign-up facility to confirm their identity. In exchange for doing so, travelers theoretically get access to simpler trips through airport security. Introduced five years, PreCheck is critical to streamlining airport travel — but it’s so far had a mixed record. Last year’s egregious summer travel backups were blamed in part on disappointing PreCheck enrollment figures.  The TSA hopes to have 25 million travelers signed up for its “trusted travelers” programs; there are currently around 4 million members in PreCheck.   After research showed many travelers didn’t know about TSA Precheck, government contractor MorphoTrust spent $1.5 million on advertising earlier this year.

But “TSA Pre” has never been  as convenient as hoped for some female travelers, says Keri Anderson, who runs the blog HeelsFirstTravel. 

“A lot of times that I’m wearing heels I’m not wearing tights, hose or socks which means I have to take my shoes off and walk barefoot, or try to quickly put on socks, through security and then put my now dirty feet back into my shoes. Gross!” she said “I use antibacterial wipes for the times I forget socks, but still takes extra time and coordination And even if you are wearing foot covering, now that dirty surface is going back into your shoes.”

Why don’t heel qualify for PreCheck’s “keep your shoes on” promise? Physics.  The vast majority of heels are built with metal posts to provide support; the metal in these heels trigger metal detectors.  Metal requires X-ray examination, period.

When I asked TSA about the advertisements, spokesman Bruce Anderson confirmed for me heels do set off metal detectors.

“High heels are not automatically going to cause an alarm in and of themselves. However, many do have metal reinforcement that would set off the walk through metal detector,” he said.

So why run an ad featuring heels?

“This is a graphic that our contractor used briefly but has since stopped using,” he said, adding that “There may still be some old products out there that will be replaced as practicable.”

I found the graphic still sitting a TSA Pre Enrollment Tour posted by TSA PreCheck contractor — Identogo.com, run by MorphoTrust.

MorphoTrust didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Another heel-wearing blogger from Chicago wrote about her frustration with the misrepresentation on a TSA PreCheck sign in November.

“No matter the type of shoe or the height of the heel I wear to the airport, they seem to always set off the security alarm. And, I need to go back, take off my heels, place them on the security belt and walk barefoot through the security line…No matter the heel height. No matter the shoe brand. The high heels needed to come off,” wrote Aimee Thompson.

Worse yet, she says, there’s confusion among travelers and every TSA agents, about the heel restriction.

“Without fail, whenever I go to remove my high heels, a fellow traveler will helpfully remind me that you don’t need to take off your shoes in the TSA PreCheck line. Without fail, a TSA agent will helpfully tell me I can keep my shoes on in the TSA PreCheck line,” she wrote. “And, without fail, I smile and say that I know from experience that I need to take of my high heeled-shoes – despite that one high-heeled sandal that’s shown on the sign that hangs right near the entrance to the TSA PreCheck line in Terminal One at O’Hare.”

When you are trying to keep millions of travelers both safe and sane each year, the issue of heel-wearing travelers might seem trivial.  Not really, says Anderson.

“The story doesn’t sound silly at all, it’s a real annoyance and one that catches infrequent travelers with PreCheck off guard,” Anderson said. In addition to the gross problem, there’s also an issue of timing. “Current heeled shoe fashions often involve zippers and or laces, which take more time to take on and off and require balancing oneself on one leg or carrying everything until you can find a place to sit down.”

On a more practical level, business travelers tend to wear their bulkiest shoes on flights to leave more room in constantly-under-seige carry-on baggage.  Heels, and certainly boots, take up the most room in a bag.

“Why not wear sneakers or flats? When I’m doing a day or overnight trip for work, I dress professionally and I value traveling light. Having to carry an extra pair of shoes just to go through security is a hassle and takes up space,” she said.

Anderson has spent three years wrestling with this issue, so I asked her what kind of solutions she has come up with.  She’s discovered that a few heeled shoes aren’t made with metal she said, but before I let her share her suggestions, I’ll warn you: None of them look like the evening shoes depicted in the ad.

“Once I find a pair that makes it through the X-ray I tend to default to them for future trips,” she said. “Boots are hit and miss, even when you get the same brand and similar styles. One pair of BareTraps make it through ok, the other, almost identical appearance, do not. You stand a better chance with wedges — it’s often cork or other non-metal components, but even then they’ll randomly throw metal into the sole. Almost all traditional heels with a lovely thin heel are going to have to come off,” she wrote.

Then she offered this list, complete with links to reviews on her website.

Now for heels that can go through TSA security. This is a tough one. Surprisingly no one else has compiled a list and looking at the materials on the shoe descriptions don’t give you an indication of whether the heel will be ok. So I default to brands like Merrell and Teva that tend towards foam and other materials for their soles. I can’t swear to it, but I think you also stand a good chance with Clarks Bendables collection. And some of the decent looking (ie not Crocs looking) Crocs heels.

My favorite knee boots were the BareTraps Gallant Western Boot, which unfortunately is no longer made. Review

For sandals I can’t say enough about Teva Cabrillo Wedge (which I still wear all the time)  review and Teva Riveria wedge review which look dressy but have the soles and insoles of good hiking sandals.

For booties, Clarks Alpine Melt can go for miles of walking and through security. 

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About Bob Sullivan 1255 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

1 Comment

  1. Goodness – throw the heels in your carry-on bag, and wear foldable flats (that come with a tiny bag so you don’t get the rest of your purse/bag dirty) thru the airport and TSA. Walmart, Amazon, Target – they all have them. If the ad agency was smart they’d target the professional female traveler with a free pair for signing up for Precheck. Doh!

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