The 2018 TSA Disability and Multicultural Coalition Conference took place last week in Arlington, Virginia – just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. I asked readers to pose questions they’d like me to address with TSA leadership, and you delivered—a long list of concerns, frustrations and suggestions for a better airport security experience.

New Leadership Brings New Values

The keynote address was given by TSA Administrator David Pekoske, who was appointed by President Trump in June 2017. Mr. Pekoske made several immediate changes to the organization’s structure, implemented new opportunities for career advancement and committed to building an organization that will create “Better Security Faster.”

David Pekoske being sworn-in as TSA Administrator.
David Pekoske being sworn-in as TSA Administrator. | Photo courtesy TSA.

In the past, the TSA operated under three core values: Integrity, Team Spirit and Innovation. Those have been reimagined to fit new priorities, and are now Integrity, Respect and Commitment. For an organization that is often maligned by the traveling public, a strict adherence to these new values will hopefully lead to better experiences for passengers.

New Technology May Improve Accessibility for All

The TSA is employing new technologies that will improve detection of security threats in screening lanes, while speeding up the process for passengers.

Computed Tomography (CT) scanners are being tested in 15 airports across the country, with plans to expand the program in 2019. CT technology provides agents with a 3-D image of carry-on bag contents, a major improvement over the 2-D images produced by traditional X-ray machines. Software is currently being developed to include automatic detection algorithms, which will identify prohibited items and serve as a failsafe for agents.

Map of CT scanner testing locations.
Map of CT scanner testing locations. | File courtesy TSA.

The TSA hopes CT scanners will allow all passengers (including those without PreCheck) to keep laptops and liquids in carry-on bags. More testing will be necessary before such a policy could be implemented.

Automated Screening Lanes have sped up screening at some of the country’s largest airports, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, Newark and Seattle.

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The new lanes reorganize space so that multiple passengers can organize their belongings for screening at the same time. This reduces bottlenecks and makes the process more efficient. For wheelchair users, the extra space makes the screening process safer and less stressful, as there is no risk of holding up the line.

Issues with TSA Cares Program & Passenger Support Specialists

I have long recommended that passengers with disabilities call the TSA Cares hotline for answers to questions relating to screening procedures, requirements and what to expect at the airport. Passengers can call +1 (855) 787-2227 for assistance, or they can e-mail questions to TSA-ContactCenter@tsa.dhs.gov.

TSA Cares contact card.
TSA Cares contact card.

If calling at least 72 hours before departure, passengers can request that a Passenger Support Specialist (PSS) meet them at the airport and provide an escort through security. PSSs are trained in disability screening procedures and can serve as an advocate for the passenger as they undergo the screening procedure.

Many travelers have complained about PSSs not meeting them at the airport or being unavailable on request, and the TSA is well aware of these issues. With no central meeting point at many airports, these connections often do not occur. In the future, the TSA says that it will train all of its officers to serve as PSSs to ensure that the service is available to all who request it.

Big Problems with TSA PreCheck for Wheelchair Users

For wheelchair users, TSA PreCheck is a godsend. Passengers with PreCheck do not have to remove their jackets, belts and shoes, can leave large electronics in their carry-on baggage, and are exempted from the full-body pat down.

But many readers have said that they are still being patted down, even after enrolling in PreCheck. This troubled me, and I repeatedly asked TSA leadership to tell me why. Here is what I learned:

  • In all standard screening lanes, PreCheck members will be required to undergo a standard screening procedure. Expedited screening is only offered to wheelchair users in PreCheck lanes.
  • Passengers may be randomly selected for additional screening. In these cases, a full-body pat down of wheelchair users is required.
  • If a passenger or his/her wheelchair alarms during an Explosive Trace Detection (ETD) test, a full-body pat down will be required.
  • Many small or regional airports do not offer a dedicated PreCheck lane. In such airports, wheelchair users must undergo a full-body pat down.

At last year’s meeting, I raised the concern that many PreCheck lanes are not wheelchair accessible. The problem has not gone away, and is said to be caused by space constraints at airports. When a PreCheck lane is not accessible, wheelchair users are directed to a standard lane nearby – where official TSA policy says that PreCheck benefits are not valid. That means, after a wheelchair user has rightfully presented themselves at a PreCheck lane, they may be turned away and their benefits denied. TSA leadership knows that this amounts to an ADA violation. I demanded immediate action, but continued pressure (through complaints) will be necessary from readers like you.

TSA PreCheck benefits.
TSA PreCheck benefits. | Image courtesy TSA.

After the meeting, I flew from Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA). There, I presented myself at the (inaccessible) PreCheck lane and was directed to one of the standard lanes. I asked the agent to place my bags (with laptop inside) on the PreCheck lane’s x-ray machine. She obliged. Then, at the standard screening lane, I informed the officer of my PreCheck status, showed my boarding pass and asked to be given a PreCheck screening. He also obliged, but I was prepared to request a manager if necessary.

Leadership told me that although policy dictates a full-body pat down in standard lanes, that local determinations can be made. Yes, it is a pain to go through this process. But, for the time being, in many airports including BOS, DCA, IAH, LGA, SDF, etc., where many PreCheck lanes are not wheelchair accessible, we may have to ask a manager to be given our expedited screening privileges. Speak up and protest (respectfully) on the spot.

Wait Times Too Long for a “MALE ASSIST” or “FEMALE ASSIST”

TSA says that the average wait time at airport security is two minutes for PreCheck members and seven minutes for passengers in standard screening lanes. These averages sound great, but are based on the experiences of able-bodied travelers – not wheelchair users.

Once a wheelchair user has pushed their carry-on bag, wallet and cell phone into the X-ray machine, they are held at the metal detector, where a TSO shouts “Male Assist” or “Female Assist” to locate an officer of the same gender.

Wheelchair user receiving patdown at TSA airport security
TSA pat down of wheelchair user. | Photo courtesy of TSA.

How long should a wheelchair user be expected to wait for an officer to assist with a pat down or hand swab? In my view, there shouldn’t be any wait at all. In many other countries, the line is halted and passengers with disabilities are assisted as soon as they present themselves. Perhaps this isn’t practical in our understaffed and overcrowded security lanes.

Still, the ADA demands that the experiences of wheelchair users be equivalent to those of able-bodied travelers, including with regard to wait times. Many readers have reported waits longer than 10, 20 or even 30 minutes. During this time, their belongings are left out of sight and in danger of being stolen by fellow passengers. While this is rare and there are video cameras, the worst case scenario does happen on occasion.

While TSA denies that this is a serious issue, greater attention needs to be paid to people with disabilities in the checkpoints. Wait times of a few minutes should be expected, but anything more than 5 or 10 is excessive and should be reported in a complaint to the agency. I was assured that staffing levels are under constant review to ensure that they meet the needs of travelers. Make of that what you will.

Expanded Officer Training Could Yield Better Outcomes

At present, Transportation Security Officers only receive one to two hours of training on disability screening procedures before they are put into the security arena.

Disability is diverse, and TSOs could be faced with an infinite array of unique circumstances. Screening procedures vary according to the type of disability and the presence of medical equipment like wheelchairs, walkers, canes, leg braces, crutches, prosthetic devices, catheters, leg bags, ostomy bags, insulin pumps, oxygen tanks, hearing aids, surgical implants, wound dressings, service animals and so forth. Each of these factors impact the procedures that will be used to screen the individual.

This complicated web of policies leads to a great deal of inconsistency in the screening process. Frequent travelers like me know how the process should unfold, and often have to provide on-the-spot training to the officers who will perform our own security check!

Hopefully, consistency will improve once the TSA’s plan to train all officers as Passenger Support Specialists is implemented. This additional training should increase TSOs’ familiarity with disability and the passengers who take advantage of adapted screening procedures. The agency did not confirm when the expanded training would be implemented.

If you have an issue, report it. TSA Leadership is begging you to file a complaint. Seriously.

“We value your feedback.” While I roll my eyes a bit when an airline or hotel tells me that, it’s worth noting when it comes from a government agency.

Passengers who encounter issues during the screening process should take a few moments to notify the TSA. Without customer feedback, we are not likely to see progress on many of the issues I addressed in this article. Use the online TSA complaint form when you encounter difficulties at airport security, whether that be a lengthy wait, a PreCheck lane that is not accessible, an agent who performs a pat down improperly, etc. Be sure to detail exactly what happened, when and at which airport.

This information can be used to correct issues that you and other members of our community may encounter. TSA leadership needs to hear our voices, and learn of our frustrations!

Final Thoughts

Each one of the issues I raised at last year’s meeting are still causing trouble for passengers with disabilities today. But I am confident that Mr. Pekoske is leading TSA in the right direction. I believe the enhancements to technology and the expansion of disability training will have a positive impact on the airport security experience.

I will remain engaged with the TSA, and hope you will continue to share any concerns you have with me. Don’t forget to use the complaint form to report any issues you do encounter.

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