With the flurry of holiday and year-end travel, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently made changes to its policy on who can opt out of full body scans, which seem to have implications for the Diabetes Community.
So of course we looked into it.
Fortunately, TSA spokespeople tell us there's no need for concern, as the status quo remains unchanged for people with diabetes at airport security. Not everyone believes that's true, however, and many PWDs (people with diabetes) remain cynical about how much hassle we might face at airports as a result of this, but it's TBD on how the changes will really play out in airports across the country... (gulp)
Just before Christmas, the TSA quietly changed its Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) policy so that some travelers will face more screening and won't have the ability to opt out of the full body scanners. With the current terrorism scare, this change is of course a result of what the agency calls its "ongoing review of security protocols in the context of the current evolving threat environment" that provides the agency with "the flexibility necessary to address immediate security concerns."
Nowhere in the seven-page document announcing new security measures does TSA specifically address disabilities, health conditions or medical devices at all.
Nevertheless, those of us with diabetes and other medical issues wonder what the impact might be. Will we no longer have the option to request a pat-down as an alternative to carrying our diabetes devices through the full body scanners at airports?
The TSA reports that through the third week of December, 14,788 requests for assistance were made through their new TSA Cares program (to help travelers with medical needs) and 821 of those were specifically regarding diabetes.
No Opt Out?
Clearly, all variety of advocates and TSA observers are worried about how this new policy will be implemented. A recent USA Today article brought national attention to the issue, reporting on a federal lawsuit by Florida law student and civil rights advocate Jonathan Corbett challenging the new TSA "no opt out" policy. The suit in the 11th Circuit Court alleges that the policy is not constitutional, and that TSA didn't follow the rules in allowing a public comment period before putting this new practice in place.
We reached out to the TSA press office to get more information just before the New Year, and were told by TSA spokesman Bruce Anderson via email:
“Generally, passengers undergoing screening will have the opportunity to decline AIT screening in favor of physical screening. However, some passengers will be required to undergo AIT screening if their boarding pass indicates that they have been selected for enhanced screening, in accordance with TSA regulations, prior to their arrival at the security checkpoint. This will occur in a very limited number of circumstances and the vast majority of passengers will not be affected.”
Hmmm. Still kinda vague, no? We pressed for more, wondering what PWDs should do if we encounter resistance to opting out even after disclosing our D-devices.
Anderson responded with: "There will be exceptions. We’ll deal with those on a case-by-case basis. The individual should contact TSA Cares prior to coming to the airport if possible and also ask for a supervisor when they arrive at the checkpoint."
Wow, more burden on the patient as travel gets more complicated...
We also reached out to the American Diabetes Association to get their legal advocacy take on this new TSA development, but with the holidays the ADA is still looking into this and waiting for more info from the TSA and device manufacturers before commenting. So, it remains to be seen how the ADA might react.
Taking Your Pump Through Security
This whole thing sparked a big Twitter discussion about whether it's necessary to remove your insulin pump when going through airport scanners -- something that's been an ongoing topic of debate.
Opinions vary on whether you should or shouldn't take a pump or CGM through the scanners and X-ray machines. Some say they've done this and have had no issues, while others insist they will not take their devices through for fear of damage.
Pump manufacturers (notably Medtronic) actually say to avoid taking devices through scanners and even the X-ray conveyer belt.
Reacting to DOC questions about the new TSA policy change, Medtronic responded to one person on Twitter saying not to take these insulin delivery devices through the scanners or X-ray machines.
And TSA itself confirmed this advice via its @AskTSA feed on Twitter, while also emphasizing that the full body scanning tech meets national health and safety standards so the radio frequency emissions are not dangerous.
Of course, if you wear a tubeless OmniPod pump or a CGM sensor, removing it is not an option, so a pat-down is the way to go anyway.
Using TSA Cares
The policy still stands that travelers who use insulin pumps and/or continuous blood glucose monitors have the right to decide whether to be screened by body scanners or to request a pat-down. If you have an immediate problem while being screened, you can ask for assistance from a Passenger Support Specialist or supervisor. If your problem isn't resolved, you can ask to see the TSA’s Customer Service Manager for that airport or call the TSA Contact Center at 1-866-289-9673.
And remember TSA Cares, a program launched in December 2011 that created a hotline and in-airport resource for people traveling with health conditions? It seems this program is more important now that ever, given the recent changes. Here's how to use it:
- Call the toll-free line 1-855-787-2227 prior to traveling with questions about screening policies, procedures and what to expect at the security checkpoint. Helpline hours are Monday through Friday 8am - 11pm EST, and 9am - 8pm EST on weekends and holidays. You can also contact TSA Cares by email at TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov.
- TSA recommends calling approximately 72 hours ahead of travel so they can "coordinate checkpoint support with a TSA Customer Service Manager located at the airport when necessary."
- TSA also refers us to its website to look up answers to specific questions on things like carrying medications, traveling with a service dog, mobility aids that might need to go through security, etc.
As with everything related to travel with diabetes, advanced prep is key.
One thing I've learned through the years in my own personal travels through various airports is that much of this is a case-by-case basis. Every trip seems to be different, and the stories of TSA hassling people with diabetes are more spotty than consistent.
In my case, I usually opt out of the full body scan and request a pat down instead, but once when I did refuse to go through the scanner at a large West Coast airport, a TSA agent insisted I go through anyhow and was convinced that my pump-CGM combo would be OK. I asked for a TSA Cares supervisor and eventually got my pat down before moving on my way.
Now, with this new change, I will think harder about using resources at my disposal, and will also carry my doctor's note and fill out and bring along that TSA Disability Notification Card to alert security agents to my status. That way, if anyone grumbles or hassles me, I can wave it in their face to remind them that it's all part of doing their important job of keeping air travelers safe, while also respecting folks with medical issues and treating us with dignity.