Flying the "Friendly" Skies?

Reprinted from PN October 2012

Knowing your rights and what to expect makes going through airport security a little less troublesome.

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It’s the three letters at the airport everyone dreads to hear — TSA. The Transportation Security Agency, the essential watchdogs of the airports.

TSA employs approximately 55,000 people to, in the words of their mission statement, “maximize transportation protection and security in response to the evolving terrorist threat while protecting passengers’ privacy and facilitating the flow of legal commerce.”

Noble mission, but it may not seem like it when someone’s (gloved) hand is groping around under your rear end checking for explosives. Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) hears reports of incidents in which passengers using wheelchairs have been asked to undo belts and roll down waistbands, expose legbags, transfer to a chair or bench, remove their shoes, etc., etc. 

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Nearly everyone has a story about encounters with TSA, whether or not you have a disability. But, as with most things, when it happens to you and you’re using a wheelchair, it’s almost always worse, with the potential to ratchet up to miserable and humiliating and, sometimes, very public.

Security by the Numbers

Now for the silver lining — considering the millions of airline passengers who travel through security points every day (625 million per year), these screeners do a pretty good job. 

Looking at the sheer numbers, TSA handles quite a bit. Highlights of TSA’s air travel program in 2010 included:

-         Screening more than 628 million people

-         Looking at 425 million checked bags

Airport security screeners should never ask you to get out of your chair.

-         Preventing 863 firearms from being brought onto planes

-         Checking 100% of passengers on all covered flights to, from, and within the U.S. against watch lists

-         Completing more than 6,800 airport inspections

-         Carrying out 12,300 aircraft operator inspections

-         Making 2,000 foreign air-carrier inspections

-         Completing more than 1,000 flight school inspections

-         Conducting 123 foreign airport assessments

-         Doing more than 850 foreign air-carrier inspections

-         Conducting covert tests of aviation security at 319 airports

-         Establishing TSA offices in Nairobi, Kenya; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Nassau, Bahamas

-         Processing more than 40,000 complaints

If you think about these massive numbers from a day-to-day perspective, it’s kind of easy and somewhat understandable to see that they’re bound to get some things wrong. However, some of the things they get wrong have become very high profile situations, which has caused many to question TSA’s ability.

A Call for Reform

Many on Capitol Hill are not fans of the agency.

 “TSA continues to demonstrate its penchant for bungling aviation security and wasting taxpayers’ money,” says House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair John Mica (R–Fla.) “Significant reform is necessary to transform this bloated and inefficient bureaucracy into the effective security agency it needs to be.”

A recent report by that committee found “TSA is wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars by inefficiently deploying screening equipment and technology to commercial airports.” 

There have been calls for current TSA administrator John Pistole to resign. Mica pushed for and passed the Screening Partnership Program, which allows airports to opt out of all-federal screening and use certified private operators, subject to federal standards and oversight, to perform screening operations.

With all the good and all the bad associated with the agency, TSA has put a good amount of work into the travelers with disabilities and medical conditions program. 

The website,, offers a great deal of information to people with disabilities, and, more specifically, to people with mobility impairments:

When You’re Screened

No current screening systems can process a wheelchair without setting off an alarm, so you will almost certainly be asked if you can walk through the screening device. Anybody who can’t do this will be subject to a pat-down.

You may request a private room and/or drape if more personal inspection is needed. Always let the screener know if you have a medical device they will feel during a pat-down. All pat-downs are only conducted by same-gender officers, and you can select a witness if you like.

Your wheelchair and anything attached to your chair will be screened. A screener should help you place your possessions on the X-ray belt, monitor them when you cannot see them, and return them to you when you are through the process. They should never ask you to get out of your chair or to take off your shoes if you state you cannot remove them.

The screener will likely use the explosive trace sampling swab on your wheelchair, shoes, etc. They may have to ask you to lift or raise clothing, in which case you may request the private screening.

You should not have to remove any clothing, nor should they ask you to expose an ostomy or urine bag. With most items, it helps if you let them know ahead of time that you have any medical device.

Veteran Assistance

Last year, TSA opened its Wounded Warrior/Military Severely Injured Joint Support Operations Center Program to veterans with severe disabilities.

This service is operated through a central office in Washington, D.C., with calls and information forwarded to airports around the country. Levels of assistance will vary from airport to airport and with the busyness of the travel day, but may range from escort from the curb through security, or simply assistance to getting in a priority security line.

In an effort to counter fraudulent use, TSA has asked PVA members to route requests for this assistance for personal travel through PVA’s national office.

PVA members should email their flight and personal contact information to PVA’s travel office at or advocacy at 72 hours before a confirmed flight. This service is available only to PVA members. PVA will simply act as a pass-through; follow-up will come directly from the TSA liaison officer. That official will then notify local security officials as needed, but TSA will not respond to any request until 72–24 hours before a flight. 

A Call for Help

As a general matter, TSA recently opened a hotline called TSA Cares at 855-787-2227 (toll free, weekdays 8 a.m. – 11 p.m. EST; weekends and holidays 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. EST).

Travelers may call prior to traveling with questions about screening policies, procedures and what to expect at the security checkpoint. It’s not a complaint line but will act as a dedicated resource for passengers preparing for security screening.

TSA recommends passengers call approximately 72 hours ahead of travel to coordinate checkpoint support at a particular airport, if needed.

The good, the bad, and the ugly — we will likely encounter it all dealing with the necessary inconvenience that is the security screening process. Make it as bearable as possible to keep it at the inconvenience level, give yourself plenty of time, be clear about what screeners may find in a pat-down, and take deep breaths and find your happy place as needed.

For more information, call 855-787-2227 or visit


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Flying the "Friendly" Skies?


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