Disabled Travelers and Enhanced Pat Downs


I’ve been getting a lot of questions and comments from travelers this week about the new “enhanced pat downs” now being used by the TSA.

Some people feel that wheelchair-users have been subjected to overly invasive searches by TSA agents all along. Others are worried that the new procedures will be even more up-close-and-personal. And some folks just want a few tips about how to make things go more smoothly at security checkpoints.

And although the TSA refuses to disclose specific details about security procedures, I’ve had lots of feedback about what’s going on at security checkpoints lately. With that in mind, here’s what wheelchair-users and slow walkers can expect when they fly these days.

Under the new procedures, all passengers are required to go through whole body imaging (WBI) scanners at security checkpoints. Previously WBI scanners were only used for secondary screening, for passengers that set off metal detectors. And although the TSA first claimed WBI scanners would never be used for primary screenings, that too has changed. Now they’re for everybody.

You can choose to opt out of the WBI scan, but if you do that you are subject to a pat down search. And since 10-31-10, the only kind of pat down preformed is the enhanced pat down, which is a lot more intimate than the previous version.

Of course the choice is entirely taken away from wheelchair-users and many slow walkers, as you have to be able to stand unassisted for five to seven seconds, with your hands raised above shoulder level, in order to use the WBI scanner. If you can’t, you’re automatically subjected to an enhanced pat down. People who have prosthetic limbs or joint replacements will still be able to use the WBI scanners (assuming they can walk unaided), as will folks with pacemakers.

So what can you expect when a TSA agent does an enhanced pat down?

  • They will use their open palm (instead of the back of the hand as they previously did) to pat down your entire body, including your breasts, buttocks and genitals.
  • They will feel inside the waistband of your pants.
  • They will put the removable parts of your wheelchair (such as the cushion) through the x-ray machine. Canes and other assistive devices will also be x-rayed.
  • They will make wheelchair-users lean forward so they can pat down your back.
  • If they feel extra padding under your pants, they will probably ask you if you are wearing a diaper.
  • They are required to tell you what areas of your body they will touch, before they touch it.

They are required to offer you a private screening.

So what’s a traveler to do when they’re subjected to these new procedures?

  • If you use a cane or walker and don’t think you can walk 20 feet, stand up unassisted for seven seconds and raise your hands to shoulder height, then opt out of the WBI scan (that’s the wording — opt out — you have to use). It’s not worth falling down and injuring yourself. The same holds true for part-time wheelchair users.
  • Make sure and collect any x-rayed items before you proceed to the pat down area. Ask the TSA agent to get them for you.
  • Tell the TSA agent if you have any sore or tender spots on your body.
  • Inform the TSA agent if you have a ostomy bag or a catheter bag, to prevent an accident.
  • Let the TSA agent know if you have problems or pain with certain movements (like leaning forward). If the TSA agent asks you to do something that is physically impossible, let him know you cannot do it.
  • Last but not least, give yourself plenty of time to get through security. The enhanced pat downs take extra time and may result in longer waits at security checkpoints.