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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.

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Mari Ness

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