Airport Security Checks Called too Harsh for Frail Travelers

Sharon West was appalled when her elderly parents were pulled aside for extra screening before flying from Fort Lauderdale to Norfolk, Va., a year ago.

Her mother, then 74, had a hard time breathing and walking, while her father, then 75, had undergone a knee replacement.

Yet, they were ordered to stand with legs spread and arms out, as screeners ran metal-detecting wands and hands over them. Today, her parents refuse to fly.

"The indignity they felt was the fact that people were touching them," said West, 53, of Davie. "I believe in obeying the rules, but it is insane to treat everybody like a criminal."

The Transportation Security Administration says all passengers must be subject to stiff screenings because a wheelchair or a baby stroller could be laden with explosives. It cites as justification a 2003 incident in which a .22-caliber pistol was found stashed inside a teddy bear held by a 10-year-old boy in Orlando.

"We have found artfully concealed weapons in wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs as well as in children's toys and even on children," TSA spokeswoman Lauren Stover said.

While critics don't dispute the need for security, they call for a more gentle way to process elderly, very young and handicapped travelers. Their plea comes after women complained the TSA's "pat-down" policy was too invasive and offensive.

For most people, secondary examinations are not that big a deal. Passengers are inspected with wands and, sometimes, physical pat-downs. They can be asked to remove shoes and other items of clothing. In addition, their personal belongings are carefully checked, a process that can take a total of 15 minutes.

But for seniors and the disabled, such scrutiny can be intimidating because of the close personal contact with screeners, say advocates for the elderly and the handicapped.

"When you're traveling with someone who has very limited mobility, you scratch your head when you see the intensity of the screening they go through," said Karen Dickerhoof, executive director of the Center for Independent Living of Broward, in Tamarac, which helps the physically disabled.

Robert McFalls, chief executive officer of the Area Agency on Aging of Palm Beach/Treasure Coast, agrees extra care should be taken not to offend people with mobility problems, but he says he thinks they still should be carefully examined.

"The bottom line is we do advocate seniors to be treated equally, and no less than other people," he said.

Eventually, the TSA hopes technological advances will allow it to eliminate the need for stringent secondary screenings while maintaining a high level of security.

So-called explosives-detection portals are being tested at seven airports, including Tampa and Jacksonville. Air is blown at passengers as they go through the machine, and the air is analyzed for explosives. The portals are to be tested at Miami International Airport this month.

Another device in the testing phase, using backscatter technology, would enable screeners to see whether travelers are hiding weapons or explosives on their persons without requiring a physical inspection.

Yet another tool, a document scanner able to detect traces of explosives on boarding passes, is already in use at five airports.

And a program called Secure Flight would cross-reference traveler names with those on lists of suspected terrorists or those who have been involved in security incidents.

For now, the TSA says it must work under the current security system, which requires airlines to randomly select between 10 and 15 percent of travelers for extra screening. The airlines rely on computers to do this.

Passengers also might undergo additional screening if they trigger a metal-detector alarm, or if a screener finds their appearance suspicious, for example, because of bulky clothing.

A traveler who generates too many suspicious factors under the government's profiling system, such as buying a one-way ticket, paying for a ticket with cash or having a name that matches one on suspicious-name lists, might also face extra screening.

Last year, the TSA screened more than 700 million passengers at 450 airports, with about 100 million of those undergoing secondary screenings.

During that time, the agency received about 16,800 complaints involving courtesy, screening, baggage handling and other processing problems, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Elderly and handicapped travelers filed about 840 of those, according to advocacy group estimates.

Many of the complaints blasted a pat-down policy imposed in September after two women allegedly blew up two Russian airliners by hiding explosives under their clothing.

The procedure called for screeners to hand-check for explosives hidden under clothing, prompting hundreds of women to protest that they were touched improperly. After an outpouring of complaints, the TSA in December instructed screeners not to touch women between their breasts. The agency also allowed passengers to put their arms down after a wand inspection, to avoid putting them in what many perceive as a criminal-like stance.

The number of complaints specifically involving TSA screening procedures increased sharply toward the end of last year. In July, 67 screening complaints were filed, and 83 in August, according to the federal government. In September, the month the pat-down policy took effect, 150 complaints were filed, followed by 385 in October and 652 in November, the last month for which complaint information is available. Complaints involving screener courtesy also jumped from 115 complaints in September to 690 in October.

Even before the pat-down policy, many elderly and handicapped travelers said they, too, were excessively handled.

Bill Knight, deputy director of the Center for Independent Living of Broward, uses a wheelchair. Last July, while flying from Fort Lauderdale to Washington, D.C., screeners asked him to get out of his chair because they wanted to examine his cushion.

"I refused," he said. "I can't get out of my chair. They would have had to lift me up and put me in a regular chair in the waiting area. It seemed like overkill to me."

The screeners relented and simply ran a wand over his chair.

Knight, 54, said many people in wheelchairs are sensitive to being touched because under their clothing they might have external draining bags for their bladders.

"I understand the need for security, and wheelchairs have access areas where you could hide things," he said. "But there are private issues that could offend some people."

Genevieve Cousminer, attorney for the Coalition for Independent Living Options in West Palm Beach, said her husband, Harold, is usually checked "from head to toe" whether he flies out of Miami or Palm Beach International.

Harold Cousminer, 79, requires a wheelchair, a special machine to pump oxygen for sleep apnea, and a white folding cane because he is legally blind.

"What with the wheelchair and that odd machine in a carry-on bag, he always gets a thorough search inside and out, whereas I'm allowed to just walked through," said his wife, who has no mobility problems.

Jacob Seidenberg, 85, of Coconut Creek, was pulled aside for a secondary screening in May, while flying from Fort Lauderdale to Washington for his wife's funeral.

Rather than be offended, he said, he understood the necessity.

"You can take an old woman through, and she could be carrying some kind of device," he said. "I guarantee you, if we have a few more incidents, we're going to have a lot harsher checking."