The Disabled Traveler and Airport Security

With heightened security measures now in place at airports across the US, most travelers have to arrive earlier, say their good byes at check-in and make sure they don’t have any sharp objects in their carry-on baggage. But do the new security measures actually take the needs of passengers with disabilities under consideration? Fortunately they do; but as with all access-related issues, some advance planning is necessary.

Initially the biggest concern for wheelchair-users was the elimination of curbside check-in. Fortunately, this ban has been lifted at many airports, and on many airlines, so check with your airline directly regarding this restriction. In the absence of curbside check-in, airline employees are available to assist passengers with disabilities. Contact your airline directly if you require curbside assistance.

Additionally, it’s a good idea to remember that security conditions can change frequently. Be prepared for curbside check-in to be discontinued in times of heightened security.

On the other hand, you aren’t required to transfer to an airport wheelchair at curbside. As one frequent traveler put it, “As an independent wheelchair-user, I don’t want to pushed around in an unfamiliar airport wheelchair and loose my independence. I don’t mind giving up my wheelchair right before boarding, but I don’t want to give up my $4000 wheelchair at the curb.”

If that’s your concern, rest assured, as you can’t be compelled to accept wheelchair assistance at the curb. In fact, under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), most wheelchair-users can remain in their own wheelchairs all the way to the door of the aircraft. The only exception is if your wheelchair has a spillable battery. In that case you must turn your wheelchair over to airline personnel at least one hour before the flight.

Another area of concern regarding airport security is the prohibition of non-ticketed passengers beyond security checkpoints. Again, accommodations have been made for disabled passengers who travel with an aide, attendant or companion.

Says Ron Pettit of Northwest Airlines, “In such cases, the passenger and escort should contact a customer service agent at the ticket counter to obtain a gate pass for the escort. We will verify photo identification of all escorts, and in cases of arriving passengers, check to ensure special assistance was noted in the passenger’s reservation.” Other US airlines have similar policies regarding non-ticketed escorts for passengers with disabilities. Contact your airline directly to find out how to obtain a security checkpoint pass.

All passengers now face higher security measures and longer lines at airports, however wheelchair-users can expect even closer scrutiny at security checkpoints. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is responsible for security screening at all US airports. As a federal agency the TSA is not subject to ACAA regulations; however the agency has developed guidelines for passengers with disabilities and trained their employees to follow specific procedures.

Allow plenty of extra time to get through security, especially if you wear a prosthesis or use any type of assistive device. If you prefer not to go through the metal detector or be handwanded, you can request a pat-down search.

Prosthetic devices do not have to be removed for screening; however the screener will manually inspect the device and swab it for trace explosive residue. Canes and walkers are allowed through security checkpoints, but they will be inspected thoroughly by security personnel.

If you feel the security screening process is too intrusive, passengers with a disability may request a private screening. A personal assistant may accompany you during a private screening and you may request a chair. You will be offered the option of a private screening before the beginning of any pat-down inspection that requires the removal or lifting of clothing in order to inspect a medical device; however you can request a private screening at any time.

Sharp objects or anything that could be used as a weapon will be confiscated at security checkpoints. Jane Cox of Continental Airlines advises wheelchair-users to stow their wheelchair repair tools in their checked baggage, instead of in their carry-ons. The TSA claims they allow tools to adjust prosthetic devices through security checkpoints, however I’ve received reports to the contrary from several passengers. Regulations seem to vary from airport to airport, so it’s best to err on the side of caution and stow tools in checked luggage whenever possible.

Syringes are allowed through security checkpoints upon inspection. Although not required, it’s best to bring a doctor’s note when carrying syringes in an airport. All prescription medications should be labeled and in their original containers.

In the end, patience is really the keyword for dealing with security; however if you feel your needs as a passenger with a disability are not being adequately addressed, ask to speak to a screening supervisor. In most cases TSA personnel are happy to oblige special requests for disabled passengers as long as those requests are reasonable and presented in a respectful manner. Never demand anything or yell at a security screener, as that’s a sure-fire way to miss your plane.

For more information about security screening procedures for people with disabilities visit the TSA website. This comprehensive resource is updated regularly when security regulations and screening procedures change.


A recognized expert on accessible travel, Candy is the editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of Barrier-Free Travel; A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. She also shares insights, information and industry updates about accessible travel on her Barrier Free Travels blog. Candy can be contacted at Candy at EmergingHorizons dot com.