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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 September 2012 Issue  Volume 13  Number 9

Airline Travel Information

Before You Fly: The Transportation Security Administration and People with Visual Impairments

Ask anyone who has traveled by airplane over the past 11 years about their air travel experiences, and chances are they'll have something to say about going through security. Some travelers have had positive experiences, others have had negative experiences, and still others, myself included, have had both.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act on November 19, 2001, which created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), purposed to strengthen the security of the nation's transportation systems. In March 2003 the agency was moved from the Department of Transportation to the newly created Department of Homeland Security. Many travelers, however, feel as though this organization makes flights more stressful rather than secure. In this article, I will explain the general screening procedures each passenger must undergo and provide some tips and information from the TSA to help your travel experience go as smoothly as possible.

Before You Leave

You can make arrangements with your particular airline to provide assistance at the airport and when you land, but some passengers prefer to do it all on their own. TSA regulations can change, so it's advisable to check them before you fly. (Contact information is provided at the end of this article.)

If you are between the ages of 12 and 75, you may have to take off your shoes when going through the screening process, so you should wear slip-on shoes if possible. You will also need to take off your jacket and empty your pockets, so keep this in mind when deciding what to wear and pack.

At the Airport

On the day of travel, make sure to arrive at the airport early to avoid long lines, particularly at the passenger screening. Whether the passenger has a visual impairment or is sighted, the screening procedure to board the plane begins with an ID check. The best form of ID for visually impaired passengers is official documentation, such as a valid passport or non-driver ID. If you need such documentation, you should begin the process of acquiring it as soon as possible.

The next part of the screening process involves placing personal items, such as a watch, coins, cell phone, keys, shoes and jacket, into a bin on a conveyor belt. If you are carrying a laptop or similar equipment, it must be removed from its bag and placed on the conveyor belt. Liquids, gels, and aerosols are permitted in three ounce containers placed in a one quart-size, clear plastic, zip-top bag with one bag per traveler. Have this bag separate from your carry-on bag. Liquid medication must be shown to the Security Officer.

As the line proceeds, you will eventually be asked to walk through a metal detector (WTMD). This is a very short, tunnel-like structure and takes only a few steps. Keep your hands away from the sides of the unit. If the metal detector sounds an alert, you will need additional screening.

Screening Passengers with Visual Impairments

The TSA has standardized screening procedures for people who have visual impairments. Nevertheless, there can be some variation depending on individual officers. One extremely important thing to remember is that you absolutely do not want to get into an argument with a TSA officer. You could miss your flight or worse. If you don't like the way your screening procedure was handled, you should make a complaint after the screening process.

According to the TSA, when you are going through the screening, you may ask the Security Officer to explain the process to you and give you step-by-step instructions. The officer can help you put your personal items on the X-ray belt as well as offer you an arm to move through the rest of the screening. You can request that an employee be available to accompany you through the entire process, or you can get directions from the officer, including where to find the metal detector and any particular obstacles you need to avoid in the path.

The officer can also do a hand inspection of any access equipment that you are carrying that could potentially be damaged by the x-ray inspection. At the end of the screening, you may also ask the officer to collect all of your carry-on and assistive items for you.

If You Use a White Cane

If you are a cane user, the TSA states that you will be allowed to keep your cane in order for you to move safely through the metal detector. Then, the officer will ask for your cane for its physical inspection, but if there is a need for your cane to be x-rayed, the officer will let you know.

When you are preparing to go through the screening, remember that, since your cane will set off the metal detector, you will need additional screening because the officer can't determine that it was only your cane that triggered the detector. However, if you let the officer guide you and the detector does not sound, then there isn't any problem.

Service Dogs

In mid-July of this year, Service Dogs of Florida, Inc., made an additional inquiry to the TSA for more information regarding service dogs and TSA security procedures. In the response published by that organization, the TSA states that your dog will be screened as well. Be sure to tell the officer that your dog is a service animal. According to this release, the dog's harness should be a sufficient indication that it's a service dog, but it may also be useful to carry documentation. You may hold onto your dog during the screening process, and you should not be separated from your dog by the officer for any part of the screening.

You and your service dog will be screened in one of two ways: a walk-through metal detector or a thorough pat-down. When walking through the metal detector, you can go before or after your dog while holding its leash, or the two of you can go together. If the alarm does sound, whichever one of you alarms the detector will have to have additional screening. As you wait for this screening, it's important that you don't touch anything other than the dog's leash until you and/or the dog have been cleared. If or when your dog is additionally screened, the officer will ask your permission to physically inspect your dog and any items on it, including its collar, the harness, and any pockets that might be on your dog's gear, but remember that your dog's harness won't be removed.

Medication and Relieving

You are allowed to carry any of your dog's medication through the security checkpoints after it has been inspected either visually or with the x-ray. You should follow the same rules as when carrying your own medicines and liquids. Anything weighing more than 3.4 ounces will have to have further screening, and you should let the officer know in advance that you are carrying medically necessary liquids for your dog that will need to be screened.

If you have to leave the secured area to relieve your dog while waiting to board your flight, you will have to go through the screening process again in order to return, but the TSA states you may ask to go to the front of the screening line after you have already gone through it once.

Rules for Additional Screening

Should a pat-down be necessary during your screening, the TSA has very specific guidelines regarding passengers with disabilities, which are further explained in the release provided by Service Dogs of Florida, Inc. The officer should be of the same gender, but you may have to wait for that person to become available. You can request a private screening at any time, which should always have an additional TSA employee present, and you may bring someone from your traveling party as well. You can ask to sit down at any point, and you should inform the officer if you have trouble raising your arms, have any areas that are painful when touched, or have any medical difficulties related to the pat-down.

The TSA is also using a new technology to detect any residue from explosives on your hands or carry-on luggage. Testing is done randomly, and the officer will only ask to swab your hands or personal items. Then, that swab will be placed into a machine, and you will have to wait for the results before you can be cleared.

Conclusion

With some preparation and patience, the screening procedure should be relatively easy, and the TSA is making a conscious effort to accommodate people with visual impairments. The best two pieces of advice are these: give yourself plenty of time, and if you experience a problem, stay calm. You can ask to speak with a supervisor or contact the TSA to explain your situation if there is any trouble with your screening.

Resources

I encourage all travelers to thoroughly review the following resources before your trips:

Transportation Security Administration website

TSA Cares (toll-free helpline) (855) 787-2227
Monday - Friday: 8:00 am - 11:00 pm
9:00 am - 9:00 pm on weekends and Federal holidays

My TSA app

For iOS devices and smart phones, this free app provides a great deal of up-to-date information.

GDUI (Guide Dog Users Inc.)

This site provides information for guide dog users, including travel information.

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