The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) gets a bad rap for its increasingly strict carry-on guidelines and screening practices at airports. Seniors can have a difficult time getting through airport security checkpoints, especially those traveling with mobility aids and implanted medical equipment.
In 2011, a claim that security officials at a Florida airport forced a 95-year-old woman with cancer to remove her adult diaper as part of a security pat-down went viral on social media, spurring outrage and criticism of TSA procedures. While this is an extreme example, some durable medical equipment and assistive devices, such as pacemakers, wheelchairs and oxygen tanks, can make going through security a hassle.
In response to the 2011 incident, TSA officials released a statement explaining that, “While every person and item must be screened before entering the secure boarding area, the TSA works with passengers to resolve security alarms in a respectful and sensitive manner.”
If a senior is still capable of traveling, how can caregivers expedite the process of getting through airport security safely while ensuring their elderly relatives are treated with respect? Sarah Horowitz, spokesperson for the TSA’s Office of Public Affairs, weighs in on how certain assistive devices may affect airport security.
Wheelchairs, Walkers and Mobility Aids
“TSA officials have found all types of strange items (including weapons) stashed in wheelchairs and other mobility devices,” Horowitz says. “As a result, the TSA requires that all passengers, including those who use a motorized scooter, wheelchair, walker, cane or other mobility device, be screened in some way.” Smaller items like canes can usually be put through the X-ray screening machine, while larger devices can be inspected by an officer. Any bags or satchels that are attached to mobility devices must be removed and put on the X-ray belt for inspection, so be prepared.
To facilitate the process, let the airport security officer know your loved one’s level of mobility. Can they walk or stand unassisted? Do they have limited arm movement that may make it difficult for them to hold a certain position while screening? Passengers with limited mobility can request to be seated for at least part of their screening, and those who are unable to stand can be screened while seated through other methods.
Elders do not have to remove hearing aids or the exterior component of a cochlear implant at security checkpoints, according to the TSA, although a security officer may ask to inspect these devices if they alarm the metal detector or other advanced imaging technology.
Artificial Hips and Other Surgical Implants
Surgically implanted devices, such as artificial joints, pacemakers and aneurysm clips, may set off metal detectors at the airport. Although this can’t be avoided, the TSA recommends that elderly passengers or their caregivers advise security officers of the location of any internal medical devices. Airport security personnel may opt for an alternative screening method rather than sending the person through the metal detector.
“If your loved one has an implanted device, their doctor can provide a medical card to present at the airport,” notes Horowitz. “This card will not prevent them from being screened, but it’s an easy way to communicate information about medical conditions.”
Pacemakers and Defibrillators
Passengers with pacemakers and defibrillators should not go through the metal detector, according to the TSA. “Passengers will be screened using advanced imaging technology or another alternative screening method at the checkpoint,” explains Horowitz.
Notify security personnel if your loved one has diabetes and is carrying supplies like vials, syringes, jet injectors, epinephrine autoinjectors (EpiPens), infusers or insulin pumps. Insulin in any form or dispenser must be clearly marked and declared.
Oxygen and Respiratory Equipment
Medical oxygen and other respiratory devices like nebulizers, CPAP, BiPAP and APAP machines must be screened before being permitted through the security checkpoint. If your loved one uses a portable oxygen concentrator, contact the airline in advance to ensure the model is approved for in-flight use.
If a senior can be disconnected from their respiratory equipment, make sure you are trained to help them do so safely. This will enable officers to screen the person and the equipment separately. If the senior is unable to disconnect, inform the security officer and he or she will arrange for an alternate inspection process while your loved one remains connected to the oxygen source.
Prescription medications and pills do not have to be in their original bottles, but the TSA says it is helpful. Regardless of how medications are packaged, they need to be screened. Liquid medications should be labeled, and those in quantities larger than 3.4 ounces each must be separated from other carry-on items and declared to the security officer as medically necessary. Medically necessary liquids, gels and aerosols are exempt from the 3-1-1 rule but may require additional screening.
If a personal search is required, passengers may choose to remain in the public area or request to go to a private area for screening at any time. Privacy may be preferred for pat-downs involving sensitive areas. A caregiver can accompany the elder, but they will have to be re-screened afterwards.
TSA notification cards are available on the TSA website. Seniors and their caregivers can print and fill one out to hand to TSA officers at the security checkpoint to notify them of a disability/medical condition that may affect their screening. These cards do not exempt passengers from screening, but they do help facilitate communication with security officers. In many cases, it can also be helpful to bring along medical documentation of a loved one’s condition(s) and treatment plan(s) to help avoid any issues getting through security with necessary devices and medications.
When traveling with elders, the most important rules are to plan ahead, pack carefully and allow plenty of extra time to get through security. If you have additional questions or concerns about your travels, contact the TSA Cares helpline 72 hours prior to travel for guidance at (855) 787-2227. Passenger Support Specialists can also be requested at security checkpoints for on-the-spot assistance.