tsa and prosthetics: the 5 rules for easy travel

I travel on planes. A lot. So far this year, I’ve been patted down, wanded, swiped, and cast-scoped approximately 50 times.

And that’s before I hop planes to California, Baltimore, Knoxville, and Copenhagen before year’s end.

So it’s fair to say that I have a greater opportunity than many people with limb loss/difference to interact with the Transportation Security Administration.

Since I seem to get through airport security relatively quickly (all things considered) compared to some of my peers with limb loss/difference, I wanted to share how I interact with TSA officials in the hope that it may reduce both your stress level when traveling and the amount of time it takes you to clear security.

First, a caveat: I am aware that the fact that I am a middle-aged white male who generally looks like he’s traveling for business might result in a different TSA-related experience than other people. (Of course, we all know there’s no such thing as profiling.) But since I can’t be anything other than a middle-aged white male presently – I’m not looking forward to my future role as an elderly white male, let me assure you, and I have no intentions of surgically exploring other options in the near term – I offer you the following 5 travel tips based on my personal experience. They are worth exactly what you are paying for them.

1. be nice

I think this one’s obvious, though if you walk through airports a lot and watch other people interact with TSA, you’ll rarely see others doing it. I’ve found it to be the most important rule in dealing with TSA officials, but it’s also the easiest one to forget for the following reason.

Once you enter a terminal, your power to control what happens is limited in almost every way. You can’t influence the weather, the amount of time it takes your flight attendants to get from their previous flight to your gate, the length of the security line, the size or body odor of the individual who will be sitting next to you, or the personality of the TSA agent who answers the call, “[Fe]Male assist!” Combine that with the stress that often accompanies the prospect of voluntarily strapping yourself inside a giant metal tube rocketing through the atmosphere at hundreds of miles an hour 30,000 feet above the earth, and you have all the ingredients for less-than-ideal personal relations.

(This goes not only for interactions with TSA, but your own family members as well. My wife – whom readers know I adore and respect – transforms from my best friend into a creature more closely resembling a rabid wolverine as early as the night before we’re boarding a plane. Here are 3 bonus tips unrelated to TSA if your spouse/significant other is scared of flying: (1) don’t point to a suspicious-looking person clutching a battered suitcases against his chest while rocking back and forth in his seat at the gate and comment, “Man, he looks dangerous! What do you think, honey?”; (2) don’t answer the question, “Why is the flight being delayed?” by answering, “I don’t know, darling – they mentioned something about the structural integrity of our plane but I wasn’t really listening.”; and (3) never, ever look earnestly in your significant other’s eyes and clasp her hand in yours as the plane bounces through turbulence and say in a serious voice, “I think I’d like to pray with you for a few minutes now.”)

If you can step away from the aforementioned stressors and follow this rule, there’s a chance the TSA officials will respond in kind. And if they treat you in a positive way, your stress level drops. That’s a good thing, no? I’ve observed that talking to agents like they’re distant relatives you exchange inane but pleasant banter with at a wedding, at worst, gets you indifferent one-word responses, and at best, gets you a smile and a split second of human connection while briefly reducing your blood pressure.

But if you’re a jerk, you can cancel those plans to grab a pre-flight burger at the generic airport sports bar. You’re instead going to be sitting on a cheap plastic chair staring at the mat with the dirty yellow footprints on it (for people who don’t understand how to stand on a mat) while TSA take its time finding someone whose primary skill is busting the chops of people like you.

In addition, as a TSA spokesperson told me in August at a public event, it’s important to remember that TSA agents don’t have a well-defined and well-compensated career path laid out in front of them. For the most part, these individuals are working this job until something better comes along, because (a) the pay isn’t good enough, and (b) the chance of progressing to higher ranking positions is relatively limited. That’s not to say that they have an excuse to behave badly, but it can explain some of the “lower-quality interactions” you might have.

Combine stressed out travelers with people who, at least in some instances, don’t see their current job as the golden road to personal fulfillment, and things can go downhill pretty quickly.

So, again, try being nice. Smile. Talk to them like they’re members of the human race. I’ve had good luck with that approach. And I’ve seen many others wind up in decidedly more unhappy situations by giving TSA officials a piece of their mind.

2. you’re not in charge

Sometimes, I run into TSA agents who just don’t know what the protocol is for dealing with people like me.
And even though I know exactly what should happen next, I’ve learned that the more I try to help the person screening me by showing off my airport security expertise, the less he wants my assistance. 

And this is a killer, because the process that I understand and am prepared for gets delayed and mucked up. It’s like watching a bad cover band – you know how it should sound, but you’re trapped listening to inexplicable song selection, poorly-played guitar solos, and the antics of a front man who prances around the stage like Freddie Mercury but looks and sounds like Henry Kissinger. You expect one thing and get another. Variability in the screening process is just as brutal as that band’s reggae version (in 3:4 time) of Stairway to Heaven.

(That same TSA administrator I mentioned in the previous section responded to my complaint about variability from airport to airport by saying that it prevents potential evildoers from successfully planning ways to beat security procedures. I believe that’s true. In theory. But in those instances where the TSA agent stares at me like a piece of modern art that he can’t quite comprehend, followed by a whispered conversation with his supervisor, just loud enough for me and everyone else in a 25-foot radius to hear, with the supervisor responding by explaining every step of the security check in an equally loud whisper to the clearly confused underling, I think that’s something short of strategic variability.)

So why doesn’t the confused TSA agent embrace my expansive knowledge of his responsibilities? Probably for the same reason that I’d find myself getting acquainted with the exact height of my car as I stood against it with my hands on the roof and legs spread if I suggested to the cop who pulled me over for speeding that it would make more sense to ask for my registration and then my license, rather than the other way around. Whether the TSA agent understands exactly what he’s supposed to do or not, when I cross into his area of authority he rarely appreciates my input.

(I use the pronoun “he” in many instances in this post because, as you’re likely aware, TSA only lets males screen males and females screen females. I just wanted to cut off any arguments that I’m a hopeless sexist at the pass. And to further demonstrate my street cred with females, let me point out that my wife went to an all-women’s college where, in the late 80’s, there was much discussion about “herstory” instead of “history.” So I’m down with you, Sisters! (Upon reading that last sentence, my wife will spend the next 10 minutes of her life evaluating whether it gives her grounds under the “cruel and inhuman treatment” standard to divorce me.))

Back to my main point: don’t try and be a shepherd; be a sheep (subject to Rule 4, below, which always trumps this Rule). I generally don’t speak to the TSA agent unless I’m asked a question first. I don’t move without getting approval first. And I don’t touch anything of mine (like the most dangerous of potential in-flight weapons, my boarding pass) without the agent authorizing me to do so. The more docile and responsive I am, the quicker it goes.

One other related point: acknowledge the TSA agent’s instructions as they’re delivered, and do it in a way that empowers them (as long as you’re comfortable giving them that authority – again, see Rule 4, below). There’s not a lot a TSA agent could to do me that would make me uncomfortable, short of telling me to dance to Lady Gaga in front of my fellow travelers. So when I hear the spiel about having to “pat down any sensitive areas with the back of my hands,” I reply, “I understand – just do whatever you need to do to get me through this as quickly as possible.” Fortunately, at least to date, no TSA official has taken any liberties with me as a result of that statement, which I choose to interpret as a sign of their appreciation that I’m a reasonable guy, and not the more troublesome alternative explanation: that I’m so hideous they rush through the screening process like a man engulfed in flames, only to run screaming into a full decontamination shower as soon as they’ve finished patting me down.

3. be specific about your situation

People with LL/D are one half of one percent of the US population. And many of those people are relatively immobile, and thus, not hopping (pun intended) on planes a lot. In other words, TSA agents don’t necessarily see a lot of us. So don’t assume that they understand what they’re dealing with. Often – particularly at smaller airports – they don’t.

For me, this starts the moment I reach the metal detectors, because I don’t take the shoe on my prosthetic side off the prosthetic foot before going through. So, as I approach the detector, I wait for that inevitable moment of epiphany when the TSA agent realizes that I’m one of those idiots incapable of understanding the written and shouted instructions to remove all footwear. And just as they’re about to open their mouth, I say, “I wear a prosthetic leg on my left side.” I also rap my knuckles on my socket as I’m saying that, even thought it’s unlikely the person 10 feet away can hear it. But this combo of words and gestures almost always gets me waved through without further comment.

A handful of times, I’ve had the agent ask, “Can’t you remove the shoe?” To which I respond, “I can’t take it off and walk safely, but I’m happy to have you guys run it through the machine after I sit down.” I’ve never had additional questioning after that.

(Strangely enough, one time I had an agent refuse to let me go through the metal detector. I tried to explain that I had never not gone through the metal detector, but he insisted that I “Stand over there!”, escorting me around the detector and leaving me in security purgatory. Rather than get into a back and forth exchange that I would ultimately lose, I shut up and did as he said. After a few minutes, another agent, trying to figure out why I was standing where I was, asked me what I was doing. I said, “I have no idea – ask him.” and pointed at his peer. At which point, after getting a nonsensical explanation from Agent 1, Agent 2 started chewing out Agent 1 because by routing me away from the metal detector, Agent 2 now had to perform a private inspection of me. (His anger likely arising out of the fact that no sane person would want to see me with my pants down.) The private screening did make the process slower, but I ended up ahead of the game psychologically because Agent 2’s public upbraiding of Agent 1 allowed me to complain aloud about how this was the first time in four years of constant travel I’d ever had to go through anything like this. Agent 2 gave me the knowing nod and exasperated look of a man who had spent much of his shift suffering from Agent 1’s stupidity. In the twisted world of post-9/11 travel, I derived enough happiness from this exchange to offset the sour taste in my mouth. Notably, I never saw Agent 1 at that very small airport again, even though I fly into and out of it on a monthly basis.)

After you get through the metal detector, the next task is explaining to the person who’s actually going to screen you in the holding area what your medical situation is. I’ve got it down to this: “I wear a prosthesis on my left leg. It goes all the way up to my hip.” (Pointer – don’t use terms like “above-knee” or “below-elbow” with TSA. They simply want to understand where the prosthesis begins and ends. While I’m not a hip disarticulation amputee, as the sentence above might imply, the prosthetic socket goes up to my hip and the rivets in it trip the hand-held metal detector. And that’s what the agent wants and needs to understand.)

If at any time the TSA agent does not understand what he is looking at, I explain it to him. The best example of this was during a recent screening at JFK in New York. I was wearing a new prosthetic knee that isn’t yet available on the market. It became clear to me during the Cast Scope process that the agent had no idea what was popping up on the screen in front of him. He called over his supervisor, who also couldn’t figure it out. After a discussion that lasted several minutes, the supervisor purposefully walked away and it became clear to me that I was going to be held indefinitely while they sorted this all out. So I popped the battery out of the prosthetic knee and handed it to the agent still with me, saying, “This is a new knee that I’m testing. Here’s the battery that powers it. It’s a bit different than other stuff that you may have seen. Brand new.” And I then pressed the button on the battery that showed through LED indicators how much battery life was left.

The agent’s eyes widened, and he said, “That’s so cool! We didn’t know what this was. I’ve gotta show my supervisor because he didn’t understand what he was looking at.” And off he raced – with my battery – 50 yards away to the supervisor’s station. “Damn.” I thought. “So much for speeding this up. He just ran away with my power source.”

Fortunately, my situation was so fascinating that another TSA agent only a few feet away who was supposed to be searching the suitcase of a young woman struck up a conversation with me while she waited for him to rifle through her belongings. This took my mind off the fact that I was stuck with a non-functional knee. By the time we finished our discussion, I had my battery back and was walking towards my gate, and the young woman was still impatiently waiting for the agent to rummage through her delicates.

4. if things go wrong, firmly (but politely) assert yourself

People may read the first 3 rules and say, “This guy doesn’t get it. Even though he travels a lot, he’s never experienced what I did. If he only heard my story, he’d understand just how awful it can be.” Just to be clear, I have heard a lot of TSA horror stories from amputees around the United States. Rules 1-3 are my suggestions – based solely on my experience – about how to avoid ever having to apply Rule 4.

But sometimes there’s just no escape. Even if you do everything right, the TSA agent has an attitude problem or simply shouldn’t be in a job that entails interacting with people. You are soon going to be able to tell in mind-numbing detail your very own TSA Horror Story.

In the heat of that moment, some of my friends and acquaintances have been caught in uncomfortable and pressure-filled situations that have left them feeling at best ripping mad, and at worst violated and on the edge of hysteria.

That is never appropriate, excusable, or tolerable. 

Even though TSA has the right to make sure you don’t pose a threat to air safety, you have the right to your dignity and privacy.

So first, if at any point you feel uncomfortable about what’s being asked of you – I don’t care about showing my prosthesis in public, but I suspect that’s a minority position in the LL/D community – ask for a private screening. It’s always available to you, and it also ensures that a second TSA official will be brought into the process, as one-on-one private screenings aren’t permitted. That can be a good thing if the reason you’re requesting the private screening is because of issues you’re having with the first agent.

Second, don’t be afraid to seek intervention. If the agent can’t be dealt with reasonably, politely ask to speak to his/her supervisor. Especially if the person is being unreasonable, bringing a new TSA agent into the situation can help defuse things, as subordinates generally can’t/don’t act in a peremptory and abusive manner in front of their boss. It’s also helpful because supervisors tend to have more experience and are therefore more familiar with appropriate screening procedures.

Third, remain calm. This is hard as things spiral out of control. But the more upset you get, the more likely it is that either (a) the TSA agent and his/her peers will see you as out of control and a threat (if you’re getting angry), or compel you to do things you’re entirely uncomfortable with (if you’re feeling victimized).

5. remember the ultimate purpose of going through security

Ok – this isn’t really a rule that helps you strategically deal with TSA. But a group of five is so much cooler sounding that a group of four, isn’t it? So this is more of a “big picture” reminder.

No matter how much of a pain in the neck getting through security is with a prosthesis, I try to keep everything in perspective. I’d rather be hassled, inconvenienced, and annoyed at an airport than get through the process in two minutes only to end up plummeting to the Earth from Olympian heights because the crazy man in the back of the plane got on as easily as I did. And since I don’t have any choice about whether or not to deal with TSA when I fly, I figure this “high-level” attitude is the best way to stay sane through the process.

So when, as almost happened last year, I thought I was going to miss a flight while sitting in a plastic chair all the while silently cursing TSA – it took them 10 minutes just to find a male employee to screen me, and then another 15 minutes to get me through a process that normally takes half that long – I calmed myself by remembering that it was just a flight that I might miss. And in the great scheme of things, that wasn’t so bad.

In the past week, we’ve seen an avalanche of stories detailing the thwarted attempt of Yemeni terrorists to blow up cargo jets in midair. I cringe in anticipation of my next trip to the airport, as it’s likely that I’ll be scrutinized even more closely than normal by TSA. But in the 21st century, this is our reality. We can fight it (and TSA), or accept it and push on through as best we can.

For the sake of completeness, here’s the typical screening process I go through when traveling:

  1. metal detector;
  2. full body scanner (if the airport has this equipment);
  3. swabbing of hands, sound side shoe, and prosthesis;
  4. full body wanding;
  5. full body patdown;
  6. Cast Scope (if the airport has this equipment).

Note: I’ve only come across one airport so far – Reagan National in DC – that has both the full body scanners and the Cast Scope, though they aren’t always both used by TSA when I travel from there – sometimes they skip the full body scanner.

9 thoughts on “tsa and prosthetics: the 5 rules for easy travel

  1. My feelings are not nearly as positive towards TSA. How “safe and secure” are they really making our travel when I am constantly forced to decipher my own castscope pictures for them? Seriously, somebody with bad intentions could provide the same explanations and be bold faced lying.

    I understand the need to be screened extra. I never have, and still don’t fight that issue. I always approach with a smile, despite the past abuses I’ve endured. I am always polite. This being said, I’ve been met with rude screeners who view me as an inconvenience and a freak. I’ve had screeners as ME what to do, and I’ve had them admit that they don’t know what to do so “just go and I hope you don’t do anything bad.”

    Seriously? With our security risk at an all time high, this is the best that our country can offer? Perhaps we need to make the positions more enticing so we are able to entice more educated individuals into the career…Surely we can do better… and we must for our own safety.

    Right now, at the risk of offending or sounding rude, it is never safe nor wise to give a moron a badge and power of people…. which is exactly what we have done in many (not all of course) cases.

    Again, I don’t dispute that we, as amputees, require extra screening. I am okay with the time, the embarrassment and the inconvenience. I am not okay with the rudeness and in the inept badge wielding, power hungry screeners whom I often encounter, despite my pleasant demeanor and smiling disposition.

  2. This post is timely since I have just travelled to 4 locations in 2 weeks, including internationally. I always ask for a private screening and build that timeframe into my airport check-in process. Due to my full body jacket and above knee prosthesis, a pat down reveals what generally feels like a large belt of explosives strapped around my mid-section. In order to avoid the quick escalation (since I don’t have the luxury of looking like a white, middle-aged male, but, instead look like a female of Middle Eastern origin) and inevitable private screening, I request it upfront. Arriving 1.5 hours before flight time is completely adequate to covering private screening and the cast scope. I agree with you, Dave. Being nice makes all the difference!

  3. In the Denver airport a TSA agent said to me as they ex-rayed my leg in a private room” that there is no better place to hide a weapon” so I asked him if he was trying to call me a terrorist by this point as you can tell we were having a heated conversation repeated himself again. My wonderful fiance was there intervened. TSA is at best a coin flip in my experience! So Good Luck!!!

  4. Great blog Dave! I always take the nice guy approach. I’m a double amputee with a hook for a left hand and a LBK leg. I just smile as I go through the metal detector and wait for the person to scream “Male Assist”. I too leave my left shoe on for the reasons you stated, plust it’s just a pain in the butt to put on a fake foot. They wand me down, they swab my hands and limbs for traces of explosives, then they pat me down. They are getting friendlier these days, and I don’t mean they’re being nicer. I mean they are patting me down in the private areas with the back of their hands.
    My chief complaint is the total non-standardization across the country at airports. In Philly they have some good folks, and they have some morons. Most times I must say I get a polite person that is respectful and courteous, and in the end thanks me for my service to the Country. That makes it all better. When I go through Wichita, KS however, I’m treated like I’m Osama bin Laden’s brother. Seriously, those people are under the impression they’re going to catch the next terrorist. And you know what? They just might, because terrorists know that getting through the smaller airport screening process clears the way for the bigger airports and bigger jets. So, it’s been hit or miss at most places.
    Most times I just smile and laugh as I go through screening. I chat it up and ask them questions etc. Other times when I get the moron, I clam up and just get through it.
    One advantage for us amputees, skip the long lines and immediately tell the agent that checks your i.d. the 20th time, that you require special screening and usually you can breeze around the line like the aircrews.
    Something new that has come out is the i.d. card that is issued by TSA that clears you automatically. You still go through the metal detector and your bags get x-rayed, but the card bypasses all the crap…at least that’s what I’ve heard. Not every airport is set up for this process though.
    I think we should hold an amputee convention somewhere, like Orlando in January, and all of us arrive at security at the same time! That would be a hoot!

  5. I also understand the need to be screened extra. I fly at least 3 times a year, always by myself, and I always let the agent know before I go through the metal detector that I will set it off.
    It’s always interesting waiting for a female assist. Sometimes I stand there watching people grabbing their personal items while I am standing there not able to collect mine-or at least my wallet, etc.
    I don’t mind the back handed pat downs and the swabbing of my hands and on my prosthesis.
    It’s way better than when they made me unbutton my pants and pull them down past my hips to expose where my prosthesis came to.
    There has to be a way to make it easier for us-I now feel like I’m the one being treated like a terrorist, and you never know who you are going to get to do the additional screening with you…that person may not have a sense of humor-which has been rare for me.
    I’ve tried before to let the agent checking ID’s and boarding passes that I will require additional screening but I still have to struggle to take my shoes off, put my cane on the conveyor belt along with my personal items and get through the metal detector.
    If there is such an ID that the TSA issues now, I would love to get one!
    It would make our lives as amputee’s so much easier.

    • Michelle – just an FYI. When the agents ask me to take my shoes off I always say simply, “I have a prosthesis.” and they wave me through the metal detector. On the rare occasion they ask, “Can’t you take them off?”, I tell them I’d be happy to let them examine the shoes but that I can’t walk safely with only one of them on. I’ve never had an issue after saying that. At least that should get you to a chair where you can sit down to remove them more easily.

  6. The metal detectors are the reason I started wearing an exposed prosthesis.
    I wear a peg leg with my trouser leg rolled up or shorts. I look at them, grin and shrug when I approach the metal detector and they smile knowingly back.
    We both know its going to go off and all I can do is smile and address the issue with humour as they do the wand thing.

  7. As a long time prosthetic leg wearer….and frequent air traveler, I’m at a point in my life at age 66, where I should have become accustomed to the public ‘mauling’ I routinely receive during the TSA screening process. Unfortunately for me….I HAVE NOT. Now that I’m retired, it would take an act of Congress to get me back on a plane and submit to the debasement all amputees must face when they fly. Accordingly, I am now driving the 2,400 round trip miles it will take for me to attend my step son’s wedding in Texas. The inconvenience is worth the end result as I’ve always been afraid that I’d lose my temper at a particularly stupid TSA agent…and end up in custody. The skies are no longer ‘friendly’. JRT

  8. I don’t fly because of the invasion to my privacy. Pipe bomb in my prosthetic tube – why? Where’s the precedent for hoards of suicidal amputees?

    I wonder if Ossur would consider marketing a non metal prosthetic leg for travelers so we don’t have to be concerned about setting off metal detectors leading to unnecessary x-rays and searches.

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