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Monday, March 11, 2019

Traveling Alone and the TSA

Despite having two wounds, last week I traveled from Denver to San Diego. In traveling, I put myself at significant risk for injury. I could have, but did not, set myself back. I have been bed bound for three months, have lost weight, and a significant amount of strength. My conditioning is abysmal. I was worried about making transfers in and out of a rental car and a hotel bed that may be too high. I was also worried about the usual problems associated with traveling. Would the airline destroy my wheelchair again? Would those charged with getting me on and off the plane injure my body? Would the rental car with hand controls be present when I arrived? Would the accessible hotel room really be accessible? When one travels as a wheelchair user much can go wrong. This was in short a high risk trip.

What was so important that I made such a trip? I have waited well over a year to be interviewed in person at a Canine Companions for Independence training facility for a service dog. In my estimation, CCI is the best national organization that provides service dogs to people with a wide array of disabilities. In three to four weeks I will learn if I passed inspection and will be put on the waiting list for a service dog.

The trip to San Diego was uneventful. By itself this is a victory. The plane left on time. My wheelchair was not destroyed or damaged. Hertz had a nice car waiting for me. The hotel room was accessible. I did not get lost driving to the hotel and I found the CCI location with ease. The return trip was not trouble free. Indeed, the trip home was nothing short of bizarre. When traveling as a wheelchair user you cannot help but be aware the way you navigate the world is atypical. The social response to your presence is equally atypical. Ridiculous and offensive comments from fellow passengers and airport employees abound. At the San Diego airport I got more comments and ridiculous questions than usual. After I got on the shuttle bus at the terminal the driver asked a total stranger sitting near me "What airline was he on and where is he going?" The woman replied "I have no idea where he is going or who he is".  The driver then looked at me and said "You should not be traveling alone". Annoyed at this point I replied "Is that a question?"  He replied "You should not be alone." Ignoring the persistent and inappropriate question I stated simply that I was going to the Hertz office.

Little did I know the question, are you traveling alone, was going to be asked repeatedly on my return trip to Denver. I was asked by every Hertz employee and bus driver if I was traveling alone. Upon arrival at the terminal I asked where the security line was located. The airline employee looked behind me and asked yet another stranger who had the misfortune of being near me "Where is he going?". Perplexed the stranger replied "I am not with him". The stranger looked at me with a bemused expression. I told her this happens all the time and she shook her head in wonder. The airport employee then asked the question I was expecting: "Are you traveling alone? quickly followed by "You really should not be alone." I ignored the question and was given directions before the employee could castigate me. At the security line I was asked by multiple airport ground employees why I was traveling alone. How did I answer this question? I politely said yes repeatedly.

When it was my turn to receive the usual pat down by the TSA I was escorted to a nearby area after a short wait. This is where things got strange. The first question asked was "why are you traveling alone?" followed by "do you usually travel alone?" It became clear within a minute or two that traveling alone had raised some sort of alarm bell. The TSA agent was polite but was looking and interacting with me in a way that indicated he meant business. He had a job to do and the pat down was going to be by the book. Aside from traveling alone, I suspect my Roho cushion alarmed the TSA. I have been using Roho cushions for over 40 years and once in a while the air nozzle will cause the TSA to inspect me, the cushion, and wheelchair in greater detail. I am sure it did not help that my Roho cushion has two air nozzles--the typical air nozzle and the smart check remote. The TSA agent patted me down with vigor--think maximum security Federal prison. My arms, chest, back, and legs were thoroughly checked. Unsatisfied with the leg pat down the TSA agent asked if I could stand or would I permit him to manipulate my legs. I told him I cannot stand and refused to allow him to manipulate my legs for personal safety reasons. What manipulation of my legs entailed I don't know. This refusal resulted in a security call and another TSA guard came over. A discussion ensued and the second guard left. I was then asked to lift my butt off my cushion so the TSA agent could get his hand under my buttocks. I could not lift myself high enough for the TSA agent. I was then asked if I was willing to get out of my wheelchair and was I willing to have my body and wheelchair X rayed. I was asked this once before and refused--again stating that I was concerned about hurting my body during a transfer. I told the agent I was willing to do anything in the wheelchair so I could pass security. This required another phone conversation and a third TSA agent who was clearly a supervisor. I was told if I cannot lift high enough off my wheelchair so the TSA agent can feel between my buttocks and wheelchair cushion I will not be able to fly. I have no idea how much time had passed at this point but these TSA agents were being deadly serious. The threat about being refused to fly is not an idle statement.

Traveling alone, having two nozzles on my cushion, and padding on the wheelchair back uprights somehow triggered the TSA. I was questioned by three TSA agents all of whom repeatedly questioned why I was traveling alone. At this point I am concerned I will be detained or refused entry to the terminal. I tell the TSA supervisor I want to cooperate and will do anything I can to pass through security. The supervisor suggests I lean over as far as humanly possible on one side of my body and cross my legs. Using a nearby metal table I do as instructed and the TSA agent forcefully feels my left buttocks and puts intense downward pressure on the Roho cushion. I attempt to do the same movement on my right side without as much success. Three TSA agents huddle and discuss the situation. My boarding pass is examined yet again, I am asked why I am traveling alone many different ways. A nearby computer is consulted. I am asked if I have traveled outside of the country in the last month. I am asked why I was in San Diego. I am asked what I do for a living, where I live, who packed my bags, if I lived alone, how did I get to the airport, what car rental company did I use, etc. A strip of material used to detect bomb making material is pressed against my hands and wheelchair. A TSA agent crawls under my wheelchair to examine the bottom and pushes me upward.

The TSA agents were exceedingly polite. I was equally polite but this was no routine pass through security. I might be completely wrong that traveling alone and having a Roho cushion with two nozzles created a serious security threat. Who knows? Maybe there was a security alert about a white middle aged male who uses a wheelchair. Common sense would indicate this is highly unlikely. I have thought long and hard about the repeated question "are you traveling alone?" Without question I was asked about traveling alone fifty times within an hour. Four TSA agents asked me. The bus driver asked. The airline employee giving directions to security asked. The gate agent asked. The flight attendant asked. The stranger who sat next to me on the plane asked. The person bringing my wheelchair to me upon landing asked. The gate agent in Denver as I deboarded asked.

Perhaps the entire trip home was a fluke. Never before have I had TSA search me so aggressively. Even the flight was unusual. Like in the movies, as we neared Denver a flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board because of a medical emergency. An elderly gentleman had a heart attack a few rows behind me and all of a sudden a defibrillator and other medical equipment is taken out. A real medical crisis took place. Thankfully the man in question survived the flight and the flight crew could not have been more impressive. The plane itself came down fast and very hard in blizzard conditions. We taxied to the gate at high speed and were met by an army of EMTs. I was impressed. I also felt like the return home was a twilight zone like experience. A week later I am still shaking my head in wonder. Was the trip home a fluke? Yes, I think the trip was one of those fluky experiences that can happen to any traveler. But I am not any traveler. I am not a middle aged white biped that can saunter through security without any concerns. I am a vulnerable person subject to a TSA pat down every time I fly. I am lucky as well. What if I were a wheelchair user and black? What if I was Middle Eastern looking? There is no question in my mind I would have been detained or refused security clearance. What amazes me is how the ableist daggers and bigotry come out when I am alone. If I were traveling with someone else I would not have been targeted. The most hateful comments directed at me always take place when I am alone--usually when it is just me and a stranger nearby.    Ableist bigots like to be anonymous. They are sneaky when expressing their disdain for my existence. Were the TSA agents being ableist? I have no idea but I sure felt like I committed a crime for traveling alone.


Melanie Suzanne Gerber said...

Unfortunately, post partial government shutdown, the TSA agents are more overwhelmed and stressed. Not only that, the pay scale is low and proper training for an outside the box traveler such as yourself is lacking. I'm sorry that you had to go you remainder cool. Looking forward to you getting your new companion canine.

Michael Watson said...

My last TSA encounters, one of which was in San Fransisco, were bizarre. I am a relatively frequent flier who uses crutches. Usually, I am per-approved but this last trip was not. Very prolonged and intrusive searches, but not to the scope of those applied to you. Your experience sounds dreadful.

william Peace said...

Being a TSA agent is a poorly paid job and thankless work. And as you point out they likely get virtually no training about dealing with people like myself.Hence I am willing to cut them much slack. This is important because when you enter an airport you lose most of your civil rights.

children's advocacy project said...

I travel with my daughter who uses a power chair. DC (only months post 9/11) was not as bad as it is now. She gets the bomb swab everytime. One time they were losing their minds because the wand was consistently going off when he was checking under her feet. I could see the problem from where I was getting my own pat down, all the time they are getting more agitated. I finally got over to them and was able to point out he was essentially sanding her metal foot rests. I held her leg up, he waved the wand and it was silent. She loves to travel, but hates TSA so bad, it’s been a determining factor if the conference or event is not the best.

Unknown said...

had the same problem in San Diego this past August. I was basically physically assaulted and almost arrested. TSA insisted on reaching up my skirt. I will leave the rest to your imagination...
35 years traveling in a chair,

never have I been so
violated. Going to apply for pre- check