In Times of Heightened Security


With the events of last week, I?m getting a lot of questions about wheelchairs and airport security. People want to know if they can stay in their own wheelchair or scooter until they get to the door of the aircraft; or, due to heightened security, must they give it up at check-in?

Good Question.

I wish I could tell you unequivocally, no matter what happens, that you will be able to stay in your own wheelchair, because after all, it?s the law here in the US. Unfortunately, confusion reigns supreme at most airports right now, and in that confusion it?s possible that some rights are being trampled and some laws are being ignored.

In the past when security was tightened up a notch, TSA employees tried to compel wheelchair-users to give up their wheels at check-in. For obvious reasons, that didn?t fly real well with most wheelers, so complaints were made to the Department of Transportation (the agency responsible for enforcing the Air Carrier Access Act) and soon things were back to normal, or at least as normal as they get at airports these days.

This may well be how things play out in the current situation. Although I?ve not received an increased number of complaints about airline employees or TSA agents requiring passengers to hand over their wheels at check-in, that doesn?t mean it?s not happening. Note that I said ?increased number of complaints?; because it?s been my general experience that airline check-in agents routinely try to get folks to hand over their wheelchairs or scooters at check-in. It?s just what they do.

So what?s a traveler to do?

First off, understand that you may be compelled to give up your wheelchair at some time during your travels. If an airline employee asks you to transfer to an airline wheelchair (at a US airport), remind him or her that it?s your right under the ACAA to stay in your own wheelchair until you get to the door of the aircraft. If that doesn?t work, ask to speak to the CRO. If that still doesn?t work, make note of the airline and the employees involved and make a complaint to the Department of Transportation when you get home.

As far as the TSA goes, I can?t in all good conscience advise anyone to argue with these folks, as they can make your life pretty miserable and even prohibit you from flying. My colleague, Edward Hasbrouck (The Practical Nomad) even had the TSA call the DC police on him last month, when he questioned a procedure.

So basically do whatever you have to do to get on the airplane, but inform the DOT of the problem when you get home. Remember, things can?t be corrected unless the DOT knows that the problem exists. Call the DOT on their toll-free consumer disability hotline at (866) 266-1368 to let them know what?s happening.

It?s also important to note that this only applies to US airports. At all UK airports, passengers are prohibited from taking their own wheelchairs or scooters past security checkpoints.

In any case, arrive early, expect some delays and realize that the new security procedures will probably only be in place for a short time.

And if you experience any problems, let me know about them too ( in addition to the DOT) and I?ll share them with my readers.

Oh yes, and have a great trip!