Just a few weeks after we published our last update on flying with diabetes, the Transport Security Administration (TSA) made a big announcement in response to all the hullaballoo about its agents mistakenly subjecting travelers with health conditions to invasive searches and disregarding their special needs: it launched a program called TSA Cares, "a toll-free helpline for travelers with disabilities and medical needs."
According to the announcement and website materials:
• You can call this line toll free at 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 9am — 9pm EST, excluding federal holidays.
• TSA recommends that we call approximately 72 hours ahead of travel so that they can "coordinate checkpoint support with a TSA Customer Service Manager located at the airport when necessary." According to an employee who answered when I called, that means the TSA hotline staff can actually alert the TSA Customer Service Manager at the airport you're headed to about your special needs; the Manager may call or email you to make arrangements if you think you'll need personalized assistance getting through security.
• After hours (when the hotline is closed) you can find information about traveling with disabilities and medical needs on TSA's website at: http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/travelers-disabilities-and-medical-conditions
• Travelers who are deaf or hard of hearing can use a relay service to contact TSA Cares or can e-mail TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov.
What does this all mean for people with diabetes in particular? The the hotline employee I spoke to (John, employee #6137 - they don't give out last names) says: "All your diabetes supplies are perfectly fine to go through the checkpoint. You just have to have them properly labelled -- like if you have syringes preloaded with medication, they need a pharmacy label -- or if you have insulin and syringes then the insulin needs to be labelled. You just put your supplies in a separate bin and declare them to the officers at the checkpoint."
That didn't sound much different than in the past, but the fact that TSA now has a whole call center service and program dedicated to medical needs must indicate something. We were in touch again with American Diabetes Association (ADA) Legal Advocacy Fellow Katharine Gordon, who cautiously says about TSA Cares: "We will see how it works in practice, (but) this does seem to be a positive development."
The ADA has actually been instrumental — along with many other disease advocacy groups — in lobbying TSA to get off their butts and create some kind of proactive procedures to assist travelers who wear medical devices and such.
What the ADA's done now is to consolidate the new information and detailed tips for travelers carrying insulin, and wearing pumps and CGMs, into one easy-to-read Fact Sheet document, which is worth a download, IMHO.
ADA's new main page on air travel with diabetes also includes an easy link to print out that optional TSA Disability Notification Card that you can carry with you and flash to airport agents in case they start asking questions. It's no guarantee that you won't be held up, but in my experience, having the card at the ready made the "swabbing" procedure go quicker, because the agents could see that this scrutiny was old hat for me, and that I was ready and willing to answer any questions about my diabetes gear.
In fact, it might be worth printing out ADA's 5-page Fact Sheet and carrying that around with you, as it lists EXACTLY what items are permitted through security. This includes, somewhat surprisingly, the following:
- Urine ketone test strips
- a Glucagon emergency kit (despite that gi-normous needle?!)
- Insulin, Symlin, Byetta, and "other liquids and gels" including juice and cake gel
- and an "unlimited number of unused syringes, when accompanied by insulin or other injectable medication"
You can also carry on "an unlimited number of used syringes, when transported in Sharps disposal or other similar hard-surface container." Although I don't know why anyone would put a priority on taking their used syringes as carry-on supplies?
The Fact Sheet also explains TSA Cares services, and gives all the details you need to report an incident if you don't think you've been treated fairly. If an agent seems to be roughing you up, a great response might be waiving this Fact Sheet in his or her face while calmly stating that you know your rights.
"It will be interesting to find out how (the program) is being used," Gordon says, "but it really did grow out of the several incidents that many advocacy groups pushed when their constituents were treated poorly."
Nice to know that someone is working hard on our behalf to ensure that we're treated fairly.
Unfortunately, you may not be treated as fairly if you happen to be Middle Eastern, or look "ethnic" in any way that brings terrorists to mind. Yikes! I shudder to think about PWDs who fall in both categories... Would their syringes look more suspect than ours?