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Airport security and disabilities


This morning's bit of news is that the New York Times and CBS News believe that people are using wheelchairs to skip airport lines legally.
Now, neither the New York Times nor CBS nor these alleged cheaters interviewed me, but if they had, I would had had a bit of news for them:

You rarely save time by going through the disabled line in security.

If only.

Since using the wheelchair, I have had to add to my airport arrival time. Sometimes, yes – especially in Orlando, which deals with numerous disabled visitors – it's not too bad. Other times – hi, Indianapolis and, especially, Logan, Boston – it's a freaking nightmare. In Indianapolis it took me twice as long to check in and get through security as it did for the two people who arrived in a taxi two minutes after I did. In part this is because I'd sent my mobility scooter back to Florida by car, and was on the cane, thus using those temporary wheelchairs. When security saw me in a temporary wheelchair, they assumed I would be able to stand and walk without my cane for long enough to get through the X-ray and/or scattershot machines, which, alas, not so much. (No one makes this assumption when I am in my own chair -- the assumption is that I can't get up.)

But mostly, it takes time because it takes time to clear security in a wheelchair. A lot of time. Here's why:

1. Most airports have only a limited number of wheelchair attendants. So, instead of just proceeding on to security and the gate, you have to wait for the attendant. This has varied – Orlando is anywhere from five to fifteen minutes; San Diego was twenty, Boston is "pray very very hard." (Rumor has it that prayer is also critical for wheelchair users in O'Hare.) This is why many wheelchair users try to travel with a companion.

2. Wheelchair attendants often double up, pushing you and someone else. (This is invariably true in Orlando.) This means that even if you are able to stand without a cane for long enough to get through either the X-Ray or the body scanner machines (I can't) whoever is getting pushed with you often can't so you have to wait for the other person.

3. Contrary to the opinion of the Delta person quoted in the article, wheelchair users don't skip lines. Sometimes we go to the Dedicated Wheelchair line (Orlando, San Diego) but smaller airports (Indianapolis) or airports that apparently don't service a number of wheelchair users (also Indianapolis) don't have Dedicated Wheelchair lines and we just wait in line, along with the attendants, with everyone else.

4. Even in cities with Dedicated Wheelchair lines, the Dedicated Wheelchair line is not any shorter, in part because able bodied people and/or families travelling with small children are sent to stand in it, especially if the airport is busy, which in Orlando is "all the time." And yes, this means that if a small child in front of you does not WANT to remove her Disney Princess tiara, you, too, will wait while everybody convinces the small child that even Ariel removed her tiara the instant the TSA arrived. (It's someplace in one of the films, I'm sure.) Even when it's mostly wheelchairs (I've never seen it all wheelchairs, although I assume that's a possibility) there's still a wait, largely because wheelchair users need more time to clear security because:

5. Shoe removal. I can and do remove my own shoes. Most of the time, however, I'm being pushed with someone who can't, so the wheelchair attendant has to remove that person's shoes, and then put that person's shoes back on, and, yes, you have to wait for this. In many cases, "can't" also means "swollen and/or painful feet" or "special shoes that take freaking forever to take off and later put on and lace up."

6. The patdown. Remember I noted that generally speaking you aren't going alone – you're getting pushed with someone else. One or both of these two people will require a patdown. (It's always me but I've definitely been pushed with others requiring a patdown.) This means finding a patdown security guard of the correct gender (hi, wait), and then doing the patdown. Even in the Dedicated Wheelchair line this can take time since the patdown people are often summoned to other lines to do patdowns because of problems with the scanners.

The patdown itself takes a couple minutes – longer than just walking through the X-Ray machine or going through the body scanner. During this period the wheelchair attendant generally gathers all of your stuff, and gathers the other person's stuff, and then, heads to the chairs at the edge of the security area and sits and waits. Incidentally this is also a period where I can't possibly watch my stuff, and I suspect this is when many people get robbed.

Oh, and, again, you're often with someone else. That someone else often has any number of things that slow down the patdown process -- inability to lift arms high enough, oxygen containers, prosthetics, medical documentation requiring review, inability to move legs, and so on.

In one case I watched an issue with someone using a mobility scooter who went through the body scanner without a problem and then had his mobility scooter test positive for something, so they had him sit on a chair without getting his stuff back, which then led to the security people yelling that the stuff had been left there for fifteen minutes, so they took it to lost and found, and...yeah. He looked at me as I was waiting for the patdown and said, "Next time I do the courtesy chair just to get my stuff back." (People using mobility scooters to get through the airport usually don't use attendants, although I have seen airport attendants accompanying passengers in electric wheelchairs, even when those passengers appear to be with family members or friends.)

7. If you are in your own wheelchair, and I usually am, the wheelchair has to be checked for bomb residue, which is another wait. This doesn't apply to the courtesy chairs, but, again, those courtesy chairs are usually travelling with someone else, meaning an additional wait for the bomb residue.

8. Regarding the abandoning of wheelchairs at the other end – I'm sure this does happen, but it's not because wheelchair users are the last to get off the plane. It's because, news flash, you also have to wait for a wheelchair attendant and courtesy wheelchair on the other end even AFTER waiting for everyone else to get off the plane. In my case I'm usually waiting for the wheelchair attendant after I've already waited for my wheelchair to be brought up; in the "this is why I try not to book connecting flights" I would have missed my connecting flight in one case if the connecting flight had not been delayed. This happens because – see point one above – most airports have a limited number of wheelchair attendants. And because sometimes it takes awhile for your wheelchair to be brought up from the cargo department. (In one case they accidentally sent my wheelchair to baggage claim and it had to be brought back.)

Sometimes it's just five minutes; sometimes it's twenty. Sometimes it's a half hour, with you sitting there as the airline attendants call the airport again and again for a courtesy wheelchair, again, AFTER you have already been one of the last, if not the last, people off the plane. And now, think for a moment: how long does it take most people to get to baggage claim? And, a key point: family members and friends can come to baggage claim to help out. So, yes, I'm sure plenty of people, especially morning/afternoon arrivals when the attendants are both getting people to security and over to baggage claim, do decide to just head down to baggage claim on their own so that they can finally do something quickly.

Also, not to really emphasize the issue, but, bathrooms. I encountered one elderly woman who got on the plane with a courtesy wheelchair, left the plane with other passengers once we landed instead of waiting for another courtesy wheelchair, and then ended up waiting at the gate with me for a courtesy wheelchair/attendant to help her to baggage claim. Her very believable excuse for this was that otherwise Southwest was going to have a horrible cleaning job and she really couldn't wait to be helped off the plane, even though she had visible walking problems and had to be in her 90s.

9. Oh, and abandoning the courtesy wheelchair right after clearing security? I've never seen this, but I suspect if it does happen, it happens more because the people might be able to walk the short distance from security to chairs by the gate, but could not stand in line without sitting for that long, either because of dizziness/pain/whatever, and because by this time the people have already spent considerable time in line. Or, they need to get a bathroom.

Edited to add: By the way, here I am talking about people who may well be able to walk short distances with or without the help of a cane, but for various reasons (arthritis, heart issues) cannot walk long distances or stand for long periods. Quite a few people, particularly the elderly, fall into this category.

10. And also, all this said? Can we perhaps consider that quite possibly the real problem is not people faking disabilities*, but that we have lines AT ALL for airport security, a process that by many accounts is not making anyone safer but is forcing people to waste time waiting in line and taking shoes on and off while giving security agents plenty of time and opportunity to steal electronics and sell them on eBay? After all, nobody is accusing anyone of faking a disability to get on Amtrak quickly.

This is a distraction. The real issue is what, if anything, we can do to make airports safer and more efficient for everyone. Including wheelchair users.

* Assuming they are faking – many people with chronic illnesses, including me, can look perfectly fine and healthy one moment, and be very sick the next moment.


( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 11th, 2012 03:13 pm (UTC)
in re #6 robbed - that's certainly when I was robbed of a laptop in PHL
Oct. 11th, 2012 03:15 pm (UTC)
:: nods ::

The huge problem with using a wheelchair, courtesy or otherwise, is that you really can't keep an eye on your stuff -- it goes through before you do.

Sorry about the laptop, though.
Oct. 11th, 2012 08:45 pm (UTC)
Wow. With all those extra hoops/inconveniences people in wheelchairs have to go through, it's a wonder more wheelchair people don't go postal on anyone that works at an airport :).
Oct. 11th, 2012 09:20 pm (UTC)
I try not to. But when a flight attendant and a Delta representative then turn around and tell the media that we're doing this courtesy wheelchair/wheelchair assistant crap to save time I get, well, wordy. As you saw.
Oct. 11th, 2012 11:28 pm (UTC)
I just get mad - if I could stand in a line and go through like everyone else without my knee replacement setting off the machines and causing me to need to spend the rest of the day in bed at my destination I certainly would. I agree with you that using a wheelchair costs us more time than before I was disabled.
Oct. 11th, 2012 11:37 pm (UTC)
It's easily twice as long to clear security with the wheelchair, even with the courtesy wheelchair escort. I used to arrive at airports an hour or less before my flight even after 9-11 and got on without a problem. (Except in Atlanta, but Atlanta is an entirely separate rant and I've avoided it post wheelchair on purpose.) Now? HA HA HA HA HA.

So hearing that some flight attendants and Delta people think people are using the courtesy wheelchair to SAVE TIME? You have to be kidding me.
Oct. 12th, 2012 12:06 am (UTC)
It sounds like it should be called the punishment wheelchair instead of the courtesy wheelchair. So sad that people are harassed like this.
Oct. 12th, 2012 12:54 am (UTC)
Yeah, that's the thing. Getting through the airport in a manual wheelchair (which is what the courtesy wheelchairs are) is not the fun and exciting trouble free speedy experience described in the article.

Oct. 12th, 2012 12:45 am (UTC)
I don't use a wheelchair. I do, however, use a white cane, particularly when in airports. Sometimes it gets me through security decently. Other times the person doing the security stuff takes my cane away from me (to put it through the x-ray), when they legally cannot do so and I am allowed to go through the machine with it (after which they they must pat me and the cane down). I prefer to have my cane with me rather than going through the x-ray, but people do not listen and say it is "easier" to do it that way. Not for them!

But I totally agree with you--not with that article!
Oct. 12th, 2012 12:59 am (UTC)
I take a quad cane to the airport so I can use it on the plane if necessary since the wheelchair only goes up to the first row. I was told I couldn't use it in the X-ray machines or the new body scanner machines, and I didn't protest. My quad cane is metallic.

I have seen a couple of people I assumed were blind wearing sunglasses and using canes escorted away from the X-Ray/body scanner machines and taken to the patdown area, but I don't know if that was because of the canes or just because they were pulled out randomly? (And yeah obviously I'm making some assumptions based on appearances here myself.)
Oct. 12th, 2012 01:08 am (UTC)
I know in my case it is generally because of the cane, as it is metal, but I don't know if all white canes are metal or not. The security people prefer to stick my cane through the x-ray and then make me stumble through the scanner myself, or occasionally help me through. It is less work for them. I prefer to use my cane, since half the time they pat me down either way; being autistic and easily stressed, I guess I somehow seem threatening to them, or something.

I will be using my cane in the airports going to World Fantasy next month, and possibly at the con itself--it depends on how crowded it is there.
Oct. 12th, 2012 12:33 pm (UTC)
So far with WFC the cons haven't been terribly crowded but the evening after parties have been. But, having said this, I've never gone to most of the WFC panels.
Oct. 12th, 2012 06:21 pm (UTC)
Good to know. Are you going this year?
Oct. 12th, 2012 09:15 pm (UTC)
That's the current plan, yes, so perhaps we'll bump into each other! Though I should warn you I often end up missing about half of the con. But, fingers crossed!
Oct. 13th, 2012 04:19 am (UTC)
We might very well, though I've no idea how we'd recognize each other! I can't wait, though--I've been looking forward to this all year!
Oct. 12th, 2012 12:31 pm (UTC)
Most security experts I've heard talk about it are pretty amazed that no terrorists have tried seeing off a bomb in the middle of the security line. Densely packed people, nobody's been checked yet, massive carnage, and throws security checking into chaos.
Oct. 12th, 2012 12:39 pm (UTC)
Well, for that matter, the most recent terrorist attack against Americans wasn't at an airport. It was at a U.S. consulate. I'm not saying that airports, airplanes and airlines won't be a future target, but assuming that's the inevitable and major target shows a lack of imagination and knowledge of history, and even recent history, on our part.
Oct. 13th, 2012 10:16 pm (UTC)
The one time I've needed a courtesy wheelchair, I was lucky enough to have a good experience. It was before I was smart enough to realize that if I get an aisle seat where I can straighten my legs from time to time, the joints don't get stuck and weird - airports are usually painful/difficult, but doable. But that day, I just stood up and my knee just let me know that "nope, not happening today". But they were able to get me a courtesy chair with almost no wait, and he got me far enough that I was able to slowly stretch things back out into working order.

But then, that was at Hartsfield (Atlanta). People complain because it's so busy, but I like it because of that. Security lines look long but move FAST and everything moves efficiently, because they can't afford anything else.
Oct. 14th, 2012 02:34 pm (UTC)
It's not really that any of my experiences have been bad -- my more exciting/worse security experiences tended to happen back when I was able bodied and pulled off for deeper questioning thanks to such dangerous items as wire in my bra, a tube of toothpaste (for some reason this looked ominous in the X-Ray machine) and a cat toy with some metal chimes placed in my suitcase by one of the furry creatures.

It's just that using a courtesy wheelchair isn't any faster.

My experiences with Atlanta's security (which I used to go through about once every three months) were decidedly mixed -- it could sometimes be very fast, sometimes very slow, but that honestly had more to do with the time of day/day of the year. I avoid it for connections now not because of the security but because of the size -- if the layover is an hour or more, I can make it. Under an hour -- that gets a LOT more tricky. If it takes people awhile to get off the plane, if something goes wrong with getting my wheelchair up from the cargo compartment, if I get dizzy while getting off the plane...any of those in an airport of that size means possibly not making my connection.
Dec. 24th, 2012 05:45 am (UTC)
I was traveling today with Noel, and she's definitely of the "can walk unassisted for sort times, but can't stand in an extended security line" type. It certainly took her a lot longer to get through security with her own wheelchair than it took me. At least in the security line we were in, there was no wheelchair lane, and the only way to communicate for a female security check was apparently to yell across the room at people. I can't see it as any way to get things done faster. It sounds like this article was based on similar situations to when people get mad when someone walks out of a car in a handicapped parking space. A lot of people may not look disabled but they are. When people are bitchy about handicapped parking spaces, I feel that they're trying to look out for the handicapped people who deserve the special accommodations (rather than simply being mad that someone else got away with it), and it may be the same thing with this article.
Dec. 26th, 2012 01:57 pm (UTC)
And with the handicapped parking spaces, not getting mad about the actual issue (not enough handicapped parking and/or public transport).

And yes, people tend to judge on what they see -- I have experienced different reactions with the scooter versus the wheelchair.
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )


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