Could The TSA Crimp The Nintendo Switch’s Style?

From the department that made Ziploc bags full of small, clear toiletry containers a travel necessity…

There are a number of reasons why I dislike flying—long delays with little explanation, planes that are so crammed with passengers they resemble flying sardine cans, etc.—but a major source of my irritation is the TSA’s security screening process, in which travelers have to get half-undressed and half-unpacked to prove they’re not going to blow something up. (It’s admittedly a necessary evil, but that doesn’t make suffering through the process any more pleasant.)

As a gamer and general electronic aficionado, my biggest issue with the process is figuring out which electronic devices need to be removed from my luggage and submitted for extra scrutiny. The TSA defines which electronics must be removed as follows:

Laptop computers, full-size video game consoles, CPAP machines, full-size DVD players, and video cameras that use video cassettes must be removed from their carrying cases and submitted separately for x-ray screening. Small and portable electronic items (smart phones, tablets, portable games, etc.) do not need to be removed from their carrying cases or carry on bags. (source)

While the statement is intentionally vague to cover the multitude of different devices in the wild, the distinction is pretty clear for gamers: If it’s a home console (PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, etc.), it comes out of your bag for inspection. If it’s “small and portable” (3DS, Vita, etc.), it can stay packed away. Sure, the rule breaks down if the line between home and portable consoles gets blurred, but that’ll never happen, right?

The answer to that last question arrives this March:

The Nintendo Switch forces the TSA to answer an awkward question: What do you do with a console that is both “full size” and “small and portable?” Nintendo is one of the major players in the gaming market, and the system’s home/portable duality is the Switch’s main selling point, so the TSA is going to need an answer sooner rather than later, and that decision could have a major impact on the Switch’s success.

Travelers jump through enough TSA hoops as it is, and they’re going to look for ways to reduce that burden. If the TSA declares that the Switch has to be singled out for inspection like other home consoles, then consumers are likely to just leave the device at home to spare themselves the added hassle, undermining one of the Switch’s main features. Allowing the Switch to stay packed away, on the other hand, will help the console reach its full portable potential.

So which direction is the TSA likely to lean on this question? Well, it would help if the department would articulate a clear standard regarding the exact size of devices that need to be removed. The best numbers I could find on this issue came from a 2012 TSA blog post (emphasis added by me):

For laptops that need to come out of your bag, we describe them as a “standard size” laptop – which loosely translates into approximately 12×14″ or larger. We’re not measuring every laptop that comes through the checkpoint but that is the general dimensions of what we consider to be standard size.

Basically, anything in the ballpark of 12″ by 14″ should be removed for inspection, and anything smaller won’t be disturbed. In practice, however, I’ve found the application of this rule to vary widely from screener to screener. (In fact, one TSA employee I encountered during my recent holiday travels announced that “anything larger than a cell phone” had to be pulled out for inspection!)

It would also help if we knew a little bit more about the actual dimensions of the Nintendo Switch in its portable form. Ars Technica’s best guess (based on its analysis of Switch pictures) put the portable console form factor (i.e., the portable screen with two Joy-Cons attached) at approximately 9.98″ by 4.19,” which appears comfortably below the 12″ by 14″ benchmark (but also comfortably above “larger than a cell phone”).

The system’s density may also play a role, according to the TSA:

Basically, tablet computers, netbooks, and e-readers are less dense than your typical laptop, so it’s easier for our X-ray operators to inspect your bag. However, larger laptops and game consoles appear more dense and need to be removed in order for the X-ray operator to get a good look at your bag.

While the Switch looked fairly thin in its portable form during its Tonight Show appearance, it’s impossible to determine the density of the system’s contents without getting our hands on an actual Switch.

The bottom line is that based on the information that we have right now, the Switch’s portable form falls into the gray area between the TSA’s classifications of smaller and larger electronics, and thus whether or not you have to haul the thing out of your luggage will be dependent on the whims of the person operating the X-ray machine. However, there may be some things you can do to influence the screener’s decision, such as:

  • Disconnect the Joy-Con controllers from the Switch and store them separately in your luggage, in order to make the Switch look at small as possible.
  • Minimize the obstruction caused by the Switch’s screen. This may involve orienting the Switch in your bag such that it does not block the view of items behind it, or positioning your bag on the scanner conveyor belt such that the Switch appears to be on its edge from a bird’s-eye view (and thus doesn’t block the view of the screener).

Ideally, this issue will be mitigated with more knowledge about the Switch’s dimensions and some firm guidance from the TSA about how the Switch will be handled. In lieu of this, however, players are left to find their own ways to avoid unnecessary and aggravating hang-ups when flying the friendly skies.

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2 thoughts on “Could The TSA Crimp The Nintendo Switch’s Style?

  1. It would be a bummer if the TSA cracked down on it, but I doubt they will. I’ll definitely look forward to flying once this system is released 😀

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  2. As a follow-up to this article: During a recent cross-country trip, one TSA agent told me that “everything with a screen” had to come out of my bag for further inspection. If airports use this threshold going forward, the Switch will be affected no matter what you do.

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