Airport Security Checks Called too Harsh for Frail Travelers

Elderly, ailing, and those with mobility problems still face careful screening, despite concern from family members

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."