Two weeks ago, the Transportation Security Administration announced they'd be implementing new "aggressive" screening methods, including full-body scans using advanced imaging technology and more invasive "pat-downs" for passengers who either set off the traditional alarm or cannot simply walk through the scanners for any reason. Almost immediately, there was an outcry across the country over invasion of privacy, and stories began flooding the media.
For PWDs, this set off a flurry of conversation about how the new security measures will effect those of us wearing insulin pumps. A lot of people have pinged me about this, and though I haven't flown since the new regulations kicked in, I know I'm worried about being hassled, not just once, but every single time I board an airplane from this day forward.
This issue was highlighted in the New York Times story last Thursday, about pumper Laura E. Seay, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, a frequent traveler who was physically searched for the first time at Washington National Airport: "It definitely made me uncomfortable... it's very invasive and the thought of going through that every time I fly is discouraging." Oh man!
So is it official that we pumpers will have to undergo maximum scanning and manual search every time we travel, holding us up and causing a great degree of discomfort, to say the least?
I went looking for answers, and my first stop was TSA itself, which wasn't very helpful. An email query sent to them in late October received an auto-reply suggesting to check the general TSA guidance for diabetes on their website, which has not been updated any time recently and makes no mention of the new security procedures (!)
Next stop was JDRF, but they promptly sent me on to ADA's Legal Advocacy Group, which handles issues of potential discrimination.
The folks at ADA concurred: While there's no "official statement" regarding the new rules and insulin pumps in particular, there does seem to be tons of anecdotal evidence that this is having a huge and inconsistent impact on pumpers' flight experience.
"We also have a lot of questions. People don't know what to expect when get to the airport — that's not an acceptable situation," says Katharine Gordon, American Diabetes Association Legal Advocacy Fellow. "We are in communication with TSA for setting up a meeting with them, to get the clarification we all need."
She says what's complicating matters is the fact that new security procedures are not even being carried out in a uniform way across the country. Some airports have already launched the new "full body scanners" which not only pick up a ridiculous amount of detail of a person's body, but also detect insulin pumps as an "anomaly." Other airports still use the traditional walk-through screeners, which we all know to be unpredictable in terms of whether an insulin pump will set off the alarm. So either way, you're likely in for a pat-down.
The essence of TSA's "old guidance" is that pumpers have the choice whether to walk through X-ray machines with their pump on or off, as it may or may not alarm. This isn't very helpful if you wear an OmniPod, for example, or a CGM sensor, which cannot be easily disconnected.
So what's a PWD pumper to do? To my mind, the default "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" precept is still in effect — my strategy from Day One. Of course if you choose not notify TSA agents that you're wearing an insulin pump and they end up detecting it, your search and detainment could end up being that much more cumbersome. Those on Minimed pumps should have an easier time, btw, since the pump is mostly plastic, while Animas pumps, which are mostly metal, are more likely to set off the walk-through screener. But there's no guarantee...
"TSA is suggesting that people identify their pumps, but it's not official policy. That's problematic either way. People should have the autonomy to decide if they want to disclose (their diabetes) and how to disclose," says Katherine Gordon of the ADA.
With this lack of specifics from TSA, the pump vendors haven't been able to update their travel guidance either.
When queried, Chris Campbell, Product Director for US Patient Marketing at Animas, sent along Animas' traditional guidelines:
- Pumps should not go through the X-ray screening that is used for carry on or checked luggage.
- The new airport screening, Whole Body Imaging Technology, is also form of X-ray. If pump wearers are chosen to go through this form of screening, they will need to disconnect from the pump at the skin site prior to the scan and request alternate methods of screening the pump other than using X-ray.
Jennifer Rosenberg, Director of Marketing at Insulet Corp. (makers of the OmniPod), says: "We've gotten people calling us from the airport saying 'what do I do?' There's not much we can do. It's an insulin pump and TSA does not recognize it as requiring specific procedures."
Her hope is that the various pump and CGM companies will band together with the big advocacy organizations to lobby TSA for more reasonable rules — ideally a way that pumpers can identify themselves up-front so they're not subject to the same accusatory treatment again and again. (Amen, I say! No reason for people with medical conditions to be continuously treated like criminals.)
According to Gordon, ADA's Legal Advocacy group is working ardently on connecting with TSA to get this issue resolved. In the meantime, here's what we can do, she suggests:
See the ADA's main page on TSA-related issues here:
You'll note they suggest that you carry a letter from your doctor identifying your medical condition, which we all should probably be doing anyway.
Familiarize yourself with this page from TSA (you might want to print it out):
If you believe you've been subject to unfair treatment because of your diabetes, call 1-800-DIABETES to find out how you can speak to a legal advocate.
They can't take on everyone's individual case, of course, but they aim to "provide as much information as possible, and in some cases can connect the person directly with an attorney."
Also, they're trying to gather "documentation of specific things that are happening to folks" around the country — what exactly occurred and why, what you were told, how long you were delayed, etc. — so they can take this information to TSA to make their case for changes.
See details on the ADA's legal process here.
If you feel you've been treated inappropriately by TSA personnel, complaints about discriminatory treatment can be directed to TSA's Office of Civil Rights.
You can call TSA: 1-877-EEO-4TSA (4872) or go to its discrimination complaint site at http://www.tsa.gov/research/civilrights/civilrights_travelers.shtm
Try presenting this card to airport screeners:
It turns out that TSA has long posted these Medical Notification Cards that individuals can fill out and carry voluntarily. This by no means guarantees a hassle-free trip through security, but it could help expedite things. It sure couldn't hurt to have one on hand, anyway.
"This is a new, evolving situation, and we're pushing for clear policy," Gordon says.
Whew. This is one of the rare moments when I've felt relieved to know the ADA has my back. Meanwhile, I'll be toting the user's manual for my insulin pump along in my carry-on luggage — another measure to hopefully expedite things in case TSA gets suspicious. Other ideas, anyone?