Leaving on a Jet Plane: After the Security Check

by Jan Blaustone on March 1, 2003 - 1:19pm

Robert Elmore and his son Grante
Arriving at the airport, Tom Bush of Tucson, Ariz., is greeted by an airport employee who offers to help him go through security.

I'm leaving on a jet plane.
Don't know when I'll be back again.
Oh, babe, I hate to go.

When John Denver wrote those lyrics to "Leaving on a Jet Plane" many moons ago, I'll bet he had no idea of the new meaning his words would take on for air travelers after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The "hassle factor," otherwise known as heightened airport security, now includes carry-on restrictions and new screenings for checked luggage; multiple documentation and photo-identification requests; increasingly strict regulations on "nonrefundable" tickets; and waits in long lines at various security checkpoints. Such new measures dictate that passengers must arrive several hours before their flights.

And don't forget to pack your patience along with your unwrapped presents.

For the air traveler who uses an assistive device such as a wheelchair, scooter, hydraulic lift seat, walker or even a cane, the hassle factor applies and then some. We all realize the tighter measures are a necessity in the Sept. 11 aftermath, but they also can be more than burdensome and inconvenient. For some of us, they're intrusive or disrespectful, and can even increase the risk of injury.

Your best recourse is to become knowledgeable about your rights as a passenger while cooperating as much as possible with the security requirements. If you refuse to be screened at any point during the process, the screener must deny you entry beyond the screening area, and you won't be able to fly until the problem is resolved. Especially if you require special considerations, educate yourself and become your own best advocate.

My bags are packed, I'm ready to go

The U.S. Department of Transportation published a "Fact Sheet" about air travelers with disabilities on Oct. 29, 2001 (see "Air Travel Resources"). This document, revised in June, lists "steps taken to ensure new security requirements preserve and respect the civil rights of people with disabilities." Highlights of these guidelines which apply at all U.S. airports and supersede all airline regulations include:

  • Air carriers must provide enplaning and deplaning assistance requested by passengers with disabilities, including assistance beyond the screener checkpoints, but they have discretion in how this assistance is provided. A nontraveling friend or family member can assist you beyond the screener checkpoint, after getting a pass at the check-in desk.

  • Ticketed passengers are allowed to take their own oxygen canisters for use on the ground beyond the screener checkpoints once the canisters have been inspected.

  • The limit of one carry-on bag and one personal bag doesn't apply to medical supplies and/or assistive devices (including service animals and their equipment). If necessary, screeners will reunite passengers with their carry-on items after they've been screened.

  • Anyone allowed beyond the screener checkpoint may be searched using a hand-wand and/or a pat-down inspection. The pat-down method is more likely when the traveler uses a wheelchair or scooter and is unable to stand or walk through the security metal detector. Pat-downs are performed by screeners of the same sex as the traveler.

  • Private screenings are available upon request, especially for wheelchair users or those wearing body braces. Informing the screeners of your level of ability can expedite the process.

  • Service animals, once inspected to ensure they aren't carrying prohibited items, are permitted on board an aircraft and aren't to be separated from their partners. Any equipment carried on the animal (such as harness, backpack, leash, collar) will be manually inspected but not removed. (Remind your service dog to carry appropriate identification or documentation.)

  • You can take a cane or other assistive device into the passenger cabin, after it's inspected. Augmentative communication devices go through the same type of screening as that used for personal computers. Tell the screeners if you have special equipment that can't go through an X-ray machine, such as a cell phone, any programmed device or something too big for the machine, and they'll inspect it visually.

  • Syringes are permitted on board with documentation of the medical need. You also must have with you the medication that requires the syringe, with a professional identifying label. It's recommended that people with pacemakers, metal rods in the spine or other devices that may set off the metal detector bring identification verifying their medical conditions.

  • Personal wheelchairs and battery-powered scooters are allowed at departure gates after they're inspected. Any items carried on or under the wheelchair must go through the X-ray machine. Wheelchairs and scooters may be checked and placed in the cargo hold with sealed gel-cell batteries clearly marked "nonspillable." Manual or folding wheelchairs may be stored on the plane on a first-come first-served basis when storage facilities are available (not all planes have closets).
Bush waits with other passengers in the security line, and (below) places his cell phone and other personal items in a box for examination by hand.

Federal guidelines also say that stowage of wheelchairs on board takes priority over carry-on items of other passengers, except those who boarded at previous stops. Wheelchairs must be among the first items unloaded, whether from the cargo hold or otherwise, and they must be returned to the owners as close as possible to their seats. Carriers also permit passengers to stow component parts of mobility devices under their seats or in overhead compartments.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requires passengers to have boarding passes before going through security checks at some airports. In an effort to appease frustrated travelers, many airlines now offer advance Web check-in from your home computer or self-service kiosks in terminals that will tag your luggage, select seats and produce boarding passes, allowing agents to focus on those passengers who require assistance. Airlines are still responsible for verifying the identification of their passengers, however, and luggage will go through the same screenings. But at least you can rest assured that you have a seat on the plane while you're in yet another line.

In December, the TSA created a Travelers & Consumers Web page which states explicitly what to expect at security checkpoints and includes a "special considerations" section with tips for travelers with disabilities (see "Air Travel Resources"). TSA emphasizes that its developed standard security screening procedures for all U.S. airports and that travelers "can expect to encounter essentially the same procedures at each airport and be treated with the same courtesy and respect at each airport."

Certainly, your knowledge of the new security procedures, and observance of the airlines' tips and recommendations, should help you move through security checkpoints more quickly and efficiently. But what happens when you know the requirements better than the screener does?

Hold me like you'll never let me go

All air carriers are required to have a complaints resolution official (CRO) immediately available (even if by phone) to resolve disagreements that may arise between the airline and passengers with disabilities. Travelers can also ask for the TSA screening supervisor on duty to answer any questions. If the passenger still isn't satisfied, he or she may file a complaint with the DOT and/or TSA. (See "Air Travel Resources.")

Getting advance information about the aircraft itself (i.e., the height of its cargo hatch to accommodate your wheelchair being stored upright) is often key to planning an uneventful trip (note that some airplane models vary depending upon the year they were manufactured). Providing the carrier with detailed information regarding your specific requirements and circumstances within 48 hours of your flight is also critical. Airlines ask that all passengers arrive at least 90 minutes prior to departure, which allows time for security screenings, but most experienced wheelchair travelers arrive several hours ahead of flight time.

In spite of all your planning, however, sometimes things just go wrong.

Tom Bush of Tucson, Ariz., did everything he could to ensure a safe and uneventful trip to and from Los Angeles in September, and still had a horrendous experience.

"We planned that trip two to three months in advance," Bush said. "There was absolutely no reason it became our biggest nightmare other than employees who refused to do their job."

Bush, a member of MDA's National Headquarters staff, and his wife, Tina, were returning from six nonstop days at CBS-TV Studios in Hollywood working with the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon when everything that could go wrong did go wrong. At their carrier's security checkpoint in the Los Angeles International Airport they encountered an "arrogant, insensitive, belligerent" screener who, as Bush describes, "should have been locked behind closed doors where he never had to deal with the public again."

Bush, 60, has used a wheelchair for 25 years due to the progression of spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) type 3, with onset at birth. He travels with a power wheelchair and is unable to stand or lift his 6-foot-1-inch, 235-pound body from the seat. When asked by the screener if he could stand, Tom said he couldn't, to which the screener replied, "Well, we're going to have to examine that wheelchair cushion."

“What I felt at that moment,” Bush said, “was that if he could get me to stand, I’d kiss him. He asked if I could be lifted off the cushion so he could feel it. I replied, ‘Yes, in a private area with four strong men,’ but he insisted that he and an associate could do it. These were not large men, mind you.”

Any bag carried on or under the wheelchair must be removed for inspection.

Bush was adamant that two people couldn't possibly lift him, hold him upright and examine the cushion at the same time. Something would inevitably fall or break and he was determined that it not be himself.

"I explained that this maneuver was dangerous. I would not allow it, I wanted to see a complaints resolution official, and I showed him a copy of the post 9-11 U.S. DOTs Air Carrier Access Act guidelines [similar to the DOT Fact Sheet] with the private screening referenced. He refused to look at it, saying, I don't care what they say or who you call, I make the rules here and nothing will be changed."

Meanwhile, Tina Bush was schlepping carry-on items onto the X-ray conveyor belt and walking through the detector to the authorized side of the checkpoint when she realized she'd missed a bag hanging from Tom's wheelchair. The screeners were so concerned with Tom that they refused to watch the screened bags and insisted that Tina take all the bags back and screen them again.

As things became more heated Bush referred to the lead screener in an uncomplimentary fashion (although he could have said worse). "I repeated it a few times so that he would get the words correct," he added. "My wife was so disturbed by this entire incident that she was literally shaking."

Finally, the CRO arrived. "The CRO did a tremendous job calming things down," Bush said. "She explained that she had already called and received an exception from the Transportation Security Administration for me to have alternate means of screening."

Though the CRO excused Tom from being lifted out of his seat, "The lead screener still wanted his pound of flesh, and demanded my shoes be removed before we proceeded with the CRO to our gate."

In hindsight, Bush said, "While the post 9-11 security provisions may cause all of us some inconvenience, I'm willing to pay that price along with all other Americans. Nonetheless, they need to be carried out with respect and dignity and with due regard for special circumstances."

He added, "Oddly, they never even examined a portable shower chair I travel with. I dismantle it into four 2-inch-diameter pipes, each about 18 inches long, and stuff it in a 2-foot-by-2-foot carry-on bag. The pipes were never examined.

"We haven't decided if we will be flying or driving on our next trip."

Tell me that you'll wait for me

I had a similar experience at a security checkpoint last summer when I told the screener that I couldn't stand from my wheelchair. I was met not with the arrogance and insensitivity that the Bushes experienced, but with blank, confused stares from the screeners.

Bush is given a modified pat-down while remaining in his wheelchair, after getting permission from the air carrier’s complaints resolution official.

Unlike Tom Bush, I hadn't arrived two and a half hours before my flight. Rather than cause a scene and waste more precious minutes, I wheeled over to a side area where I could brace my elbows on a table long enough for screeners to feel my seat cushion and chair back.

As my neuromuscular disease progresses, this may not be an option so I'll remember to ask for the CRO on site to facilitate the matter. Knowing what your rights are and how to handle any confrontations reasonably with the help of a CRO can make all the difference.

Alexandria Berger is a widely published travel writer and a former member of MDA's National Task Force on Public Awareness who now lives in Australia. She recommends being escorted by airport personnel, even when using your own chair.

Without an escort, "You may be treated like baggage and left stranded at the departure gate long before flight time," she said. "I recently watched security ask a person who is paraplegic to get out of his chair and walk through the screener. It depends on the airport. Inconsistency is the rule."

Perhaps such inconsistency and indifference will change this year; federal employee screeners have been the norm at all 429 commercial airports across the country since November. These screeners are specially trained to handle the screening of people with disabilities and are touted as having 20 times the amount of training as nonfederal screeners.

Still, travelers can streamline the screening process by not wearing cell phones, pagers, body piercings or any jewelry containing metal (keep them in your carry-on bag, purse or briefcase and not in your luggage, which may be opened for inspection). You should also avoid metal buttons or cufflinks, belt buckles, shoes with steel tips or heels, and even underwire bras. Remove any AFOs for X-ray screening.

All computers and communication devices are screened, but Berger warns, "once on board, do not place this type of equipment in the overhead bins, where the aircraft's magnetic fields are located. They can wipe out critical data or change the settings on your equipment.

"If you have to travel by air," she said, "there is no way around these stringent regulations. While some of the world's airports may allow syringes, under no circumstances would I carry them without a physician's letter."

Berger spoke anonymously with the head of security at one large airport, who told her, "We don't put anything past these people [terrorists]. Someone can look disabled and be faking. Someone can be carrying vials of biological warfare. We're checking everything."

Berger suggests carrying backup supplies in your checked luggage (which you should leave unlocked for TSA baggage screeners). If possible, use airport wheelchairs, checking your own equipment through to your destination, she recommends.

"I began doing this two years ago, after losing armrests, having had one declared a pipe bomb, delaying takeoff," she said. "Plan ahead, be prepared and then go with the flow."

Some people use a backup, less expensive chair for air travel in the event of loss or damage to their high-end wheelchairs.

Most travelers strip down their wheelchairs before they check them, removing and packing the joystick and other crucial parts in their carry-on bags.

The aircraft's waiting, he's blowing his horn

Going with the flow is exactly what Barbara Seiple of Bloomfield, Ind., does when she travels by air.

"I have limb-girdle muscular dystrophy and use a cane for getting around," she said. "In airports I am unable to walk fast enough or far enough, so this year I've begun using one of the airport's wheelchairs after I arrive.

"Time has to be allowed for extensive searches. They have always X-rayed my cane and carry-ons, including my hydraulic seat lift and a toilet riser, but now they insist that I rise from the wheelchair and walk through the scanner.

"They do assist me as I walk through and have been very courteous, asking me what my capabilities are before they proceed. The chair is examined thoroughly and I am still patted down while they examine my veil, which I'm asked to remove, and that's absolutely fine with me."

Seiple, or "Mother Paula," is an Orthodox nun who wears a habit with a veil. She declines a private screening room, as have I, for the simple reason that it requires more time.

"Personally," Seiple said, "I think a person sitting in a wheelchair would be an excellent way to smuggle something through. I always hope they will be more, rather than less, thorough."

Don't know when I'll be back again

Complaints alleging discriminatory treatment by air carrier personnel should be directed to the Department of Transportations Aviation Consumer Protection Division (see "Air Travel Resources").

After this crash course on airport security and your rights, remember to check out TSAs new guidelines on how to pack your luggage, and your bags may pass inspection without needing to be opened.

Then relax for your last moment before heading off, and think of John Denver's lyrics once again

So kiss me and smile for me, tell me
that you'll wait for me.
Hold me like you'll never let me go.
I'm leaving on a jet plane,
Don't know when I'll be back again.
Oh, babe, I hate to go.

You aren't the only one!

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Travelers' & Consumers' website

U.S. Department of Transportation Aviation Safety and Security home page

U.S. Department of Transportation fact sheet on traveler's with disabilities

U.S. State Department Travel Warnings

Air carrier personnel complaints
Aviation Consumer Protection Division
U.S. Department of Transportation
400 7th St., SW, Room 4107
Washington, DC 20590
http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/problems.htm (downloadable complaint forms)

Airport personnel complaints
Federal Aviation Administration
Office of Civil Rights
800 Independence Ave., SW
Room 1030
Washington, DC 20591

Federal security screener complaints
Transportation Security Administration (TSA-1)
U.S. Department of Transportation
400 7th St., SW
Washington, DC 20590
(866) 266-1368 and (866) 754-4368 (toll-free complaint line)

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