There Has to Be a Better Way

TSA & Prosthetics

As I have previously documented, Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is not my favorite. (Honorable Mention in my Worst Airports for Amputees list. What is it that could possibly rouse me from my nearly 9-month less is more typing slumber? Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, August 2016 version.

I walked into O’Hare’s Terminal 3 this past Tuesday and approached the security line, electronic boarding pass in hand. I expertly slipped off my belt while retrieving my small plastic bag of liquids from my suitcase, placing them together in a bin. Almost simultaneously, I flipped open my satchel and extracted my computer, placing it into a box of its own. I was in full-on travel-ninja mode.

I stepped up to the body scanner, alerted the TSA official that I have a prosthetic left leg, and placed my hands over my head. I walked out and immediately quarantined myself next to the machine that I knew the TSA agents would have to use to test the swabs they would rub against my prosthesis and hands.

A somewhat pleasant, roundish TSA agent made his way to me and queried as to the reason for my presence in front of him. I explained the situation and lifted my pant leg so that he could more easily swab the prosthesis.

“You’ve been through this before,” Agent Round commented as he knelt down to take the sample. He placed it in the machine.

And it set off an alarm for the presence of a potentially dangerous substance.

Now, this has happened to me on more than one occasion. The first time was at JFK several years ago. After the initial positive result, TSA agents checked my suitcase. They inserted the swab into the machine and it tripped again. They pulled every individual item out of my suitcase and swabbed a third time. The machine issued yet another alert.

Ultimately, very large men with short-sleeved polo shirts indicating that they were explosives efforts materialized in front of me. After talking to me for 30 seconds, the lead agent peered at the offending machine and said, “Hey, this is missing its O-ring – it’ll always alarm if it’s missing the O-ring!” A quick apology followed by a perfunctory private screening sent me on my way.

The next time was at the Orlando airport. With the previous experience etched into my mind, I asked the TSA agent to run the triggering swab in a second machine to verify whether the alarm was actually linked to my luggage or constituted a mechanical malfunction of the testing equipment. This incredibly helpful man simply told me to walk on through, sharing his opinion that it “was definitely” the machine and not explosives strapped to or hidden in my prosthesis. Somewhat dumbstruck, I proceeded to my gate, but not before having an extensive internal monologue about whether I should insist that he screen me again just on principle.

Now, at O’Hare with Agent Round calling over a superior to figure out what to do, I suggested that perhaps they could swab me again and run the test from another machine.

“This has happened to you before?” asked Agent Round.

“Yes – I don’t want to overstep here, but I can tell you it’s probably the machine.”

“It probably is the machine,” he agreed.

But he ignored my entreaty for a new test, instead directing me to a different area, handing me off to a taller, less round TSA agent. Agent Taller informed me that we would have to wait for a third TSA agent to meet with me. In the meantime, a female agent opened up my suitcase and swabbed everything in it, placing the sample into a different machine, where it returned a clean result.

“I’m telling you,” I said to Agent Taller as soon as my luggage failed to alarm, “it’s most likely an issue with the first machine. It would be great if you could swab me and run the test again on this one.” Agent Taller stared blankly at me before grabbing a giant, standing fan, and turning it on so that he could stand in front of it. I took this to mean that we were both going to be there for a while.

I don’t have a major issue standing for extended periods of time. But as I waited for Agent Missing to appear and ruminated on my situation, I thought, “They know I’m an above-knee amputee. But they’ve never asked me if I’m o.k. standing up; they’ve never offered me a chair; and they’ve told me we have to wait until Agent Missing is here, which, by all objective signs, does not appear to be an imminent event.” And, confident that I was not a terrorist, I started a slow, long burn with every passing minute. I knew the first machine was faulty; I knew that a second test would confirm that fact; and I fumed that even though I would surely turn down the offer of a chair, no one had the presence of mind to ask me about it.

After roughly 5 minutes, Agent Missing came out of a small office. “The screening rooms are all full,” he commented, as he walked me towards said screening rooms, Agent Taller in tow with my luggage. (The screening rooms, incidentally, were not all full.)

When the door closed, Agent Missing looked at Agent Taller and said, “Tell me what happened here. Did he alarm after you checked the prosthesis and his hands?”

“Yes,” Agent Taller replied.

“No,” I interjected. “It alarmed after the prosthesis – my hands were never checked.” Agent Missing did not appear happy to be hearing from me. He looked back at Agent Taller.

“Did you check the prosthesis and his shoes?” he asked.

“Well, I wasn’t the one doing it,” said Agent Taller, now realizing that, in fact, he hadn’t performed a single test on me himself.

Agent Missing looked back at me, annoyed, waiting for my input. “I honestly don’t know whether he swabbed the shoe or not,” I said. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”

“Go get him,” ordered Agent Missing. “I can’t do anything until I know what happened.” Agent Taller scurried out, soon returning with Agent Rounder, who confirmed that he had swabbed my shoes.

Armed with this knowledge, Agent Missing proceeded to perform a comprehensive pat-down of my back and front, complete with all TSA-required warnings about “back of the hands” and “sensitive areas,” He then swabbed his gloves thoroughly, placed the swab in a machine sitting in the screening room, and watched it turn up a negative result. “You can go,” he said.

As I reassembled my luggage, I pondered all of the preceding events, repeatedly coming back to the same simple question: why couldn’t Agent Round or Taller have done the secondary pat-down and test immediately after the first false positive? At first, I thought the likely answer would be something along the lines of, “Once a machine alarms, we can’t just let someone continue through even if a subsequent test on a different machine yields a negative result. After all, what if the second machine is the one with a problem?” But upon further analysis, that doesn’t really make sense – Agent Missing implicitly concluded that Machine 2 trumped Machine 1 after performing a full body pat-down.

I’m not quick to pile onto TSA. Nine times out of ten, my interactions with agents across the U.S. are downright cordial and complete non-events. But whenever the unusual happens, the internal logic of how I get processed and ultimately sent on my way defies easy explanation.

If Agent Missing had no information – zero – about what happened before he ever met me, what would he have done? Presumably, he would’ve performed a comprehensive pat-down and swab test to make sure it was safe to let me on a plane. If he had found out that Agent Round had swabbed my hands but not my prosthesiswhat would he have done? Full-body pat-down and swab test. If he had found out that no agent had even seen me, much less tested me, before making his acquaintance, what would he have done? I’m thinking a pat-down and swab test.

In short, I can’t think of a single reason why an amputee who trips an alarm wouldn’t immediately be tested again on a second machine in order to verify whether the “positive” result is connected to the person or to the testing equipment. And I have even less understanding of why that second test needs to occur in a private screening room as opposed to in the main security area. (Indeed, all of the other times I’ve been in a private room, agents have asked me to lower my pants so that they can examine the socket of my prosthesis. By definition, that’s the only reason why you would ever move someone who hasn’t requested it to a private room. Forcing an amputee to walk someplace private to conduct an examination that doesn’t require privacy makes no sense. In Agent Missing’s defense, perhaps he didn’t know whether he was going to need to ask me to drop my pants beforehand, but still …)

Postscript: things went downhill from there in a way that is unique to (and, sadly, regular for) O’Hare. My gate was changed from one close to the main hub of Terminal 3 all the way to the farthest reach of the “K” wing (Gate K20, anyone?). Fifteen minutes before our scheduled boarding time, the gate attendant announced that our flight had been switched to the “H” wing, causing a mad scramble of all passengers to find the new, distant gate.

But don’t fear, I didn’t miss the flight. I received an email alert shortly after high-tailing it to H6 telling me it had been delayed 15 minutes, followed less than 90 seconds later by another alert saying that the flight would be delayed an hour.

God, I love O’Hare.

a word that matters to me

a word that matters

Yes, it has been several weeks since my last post. I apologize for going dormant without explanation. Sometimes life just gets in the way and for the first time in the roughly 4 years I’ve been writing less is more, the thing that had to give was this blog.

Happily, however, I return to these e-pages recharged and ready to write again. So without further ado, let’s talk about why I now hate United Airlines.

*   *   *

Several weeks ago, I traveled to Newark Liberty Airport at 4 in the morning to catch a short flight up to Manchester New Hampshire to deliver a presentation later that day. Between waking up at 3 AM, seeing a lunar eclipse on the way to the airport, and navigating the somewhat confusing United Terminal to find the barely-there gates for small regional jets, the day had a distinctly surreal quality. After a brief delay for unspecified “mechanical issues,” I heard the announcement that “We will begin the boarding process shortly.”

When the gate agent picked up the microphone again, I quickly realized that words really matter. Or, more precisely, certain words really matter to me.

Those of you who have the courage to slog through these weekly diatribes know that I travel a lot for work. I’ve written in painstaking detail about America’s best and worst airports for amputees, about getting comfortable once on an airplane while wearing a prosthesis, and about my many fascinating interactions with TSA. In fact, let me digress for a moment to touch on that last topic.

I found myself in Orlando week before last and went through security there on my way back home. I climbed into the full body scanner, informed TSA personnel that I had a prosthetic leg, and then emerged for the mandatory pat-down process. The young agent felt my prosthesis and then swabbed it and my shoes. He went over to the machine that analyzes the swabs for suspicious substances and didn’t come back. I knew as soon as I saw him talking to another (older) agent that my sample had registered positive for plastique or some other dangerous substance. Having experienced a false positive before, I saw the next 45 minutes of my life slipping away in a polite but increasingly invasive series of inquiries that would result in my luggage being torn apart and me having to undergo a private screening with my friends at TSA watching.

The older agent approached me and told me what I already knew – positive test result. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I did the one thing I always tell people never to do: I told him what I wanted him to do. “Yeah, I could tell from the reaction that it came back positive,” I said. “Listen, this has happened to me before. There’s nothing on me that would trigger that result -”

“I know, I know,” the TSA agent said, interrupting me. “I’m sure it’s not you.”

Somewhat stunned by his less-than-suspicious attitude – and can we all agree that my unthreatening exterior notwithstanding, the one time we might expect TSA to properly view someone with suspicion is when a pat-down results in a  positive test result for something associated with explosives? – I forged onward.

“Listen, can you do me a favor and just do the pat-down again and then run the results through the other machine over there?” I asked, indicating another swab-testing device to our right. “When this happened before it was a problem with the machine.”

“Oh, that machine has been acting funny all day,” he replied. He then turned to the young agent who had patted me down: “Did you notice any anomalies when you did the pat-down?” The 20-something stared at him blankly for a moment, probably wondering what an anomaly was. He then tentatively shook his head.

“Nothing unusual?” the older agent asked again. “No – did the pat-down. Everything seemed normal,” the young agent replied. The older agent turned to me: “You’re free to go. Have a nice day.”

I stood there for half a second, in disbelief. I had tested positive for a suspicious substance; I had requested a follow-up test that would likely prove that one of the testing machines had an issue; but TSA just waved me through. The following thought actually flashed through my mind: “Should I insist on having them redo the swab in the other machine just on principle?” (Answer: No.) I found the whole experience upsetting, though not perhaps for the exact reasons you might think.

TSA security checkpoints are not, in my view, really about actual security. They’re about providing airline passengers with the illusion of security. I board planes all the time knowing that if there’s anyone really serious about taking the plane down, they can probably figure out a way to do it. But I still walk down that jetway with nary a concern in my mind because the official-looking process we all endure provides a psychological buffer between that terrifying reality and the fact that I’m willfully exposing myself to it. What TSA deprived me of in Orlando was that buffer; the senior agent destroyed the illusion of security that keeps my mind from going to Scary Places on Planes.

Anyway, if we now go back to Newark Liberty and my delayed flight, the gate agent began her spiel about pre-boarding. I have been on planes hundreds of times over the past few years and the typical pre-boarding litany goes something like this:

Anyone in a wheelchair or who needs extra time to get down the jetway can board when we announce pre-boarding. After that, we board by zone number. Please look at your boarding pass …”

But this United Airlines gate agent used a word I haven’t heard in at least my last 4 years of air travel. She said the following:

Any disabled [emphasis mine] passengers are eligible for pre-boarding.”

As I have discussed before, while I don’t have a handicapped sticker for my car and I don’t claim any of the other advantages of convenience that walking with a prosthesis could get me, the one perk I do exercise is pre-boarding airplanes. I do this for one simple reason: with overhead space becoming ever more crowded thanks to excessive baggage fees, I want to make sure my rolling suitcase stays with me, particularly since it contains various accoutrements (batteries, charger) for my prosthesis.

But now, on a sunny morning in New Jersey, to avail myself of the privilege of pre-boarding, I had to label myself “disabled” in order to climb on the plane before other passengers. And amazingly, that single word prevented me from doing it. I waited until the gate agent called my zone. I refused to pre-board because the gulf between what that word signifies to me and how I think of myself is so vast that I can’t bridge it in my mind.

In that moment I asked myself, “Aren’t I making way too big a deal about this? Does it really matter? Is there any difference between calling someone “disabled” and using the “anyone who needs extra time” euphemism for the same thing? And as much as my rational mind said, “No, get over it, it’s the same thing,” my emotional mind screamed, “Yes! There’s a huge [expletive deleted] difference!”

So I boarded the plane fourth from last. And I (childishly) felt proud as I climbed up the steps from the tarmac, my prosthesis lagging behind me, as if this silent stand against the tyranny of disability actually meant something.

security?

security? 06.24.14

Any amputee who travels the nation’s airways even semi-regularly now knows the drill. First, get your computer and liquids out of your carry-on and put them in (separate) bins, along with your belt. Second, explain to the TSA official who points at your shoes that they’re still on not because you’re a moron, but because you wear a prosthesis. (I don’t recommend using those exact words.) Third, step into the full body scanner and get irradiated. Fourth, emerge with a healthy x-ray glow and submit to the inevitable swabbing of hands and/or prosthesis. Fourth, smile as if steps 1-4 were the equivalent of a 5-star meal and get the hell on your way.

That’s why I was so surprised when I recently traveled through an airport only to discover that TSA had dramatically altered this process.

The first and most bizarre aspect of the new protocol consisted of instructing us not to take computers and liquids out of our bags and making sure to leave our belts on. While it explained why I couldn’t find any bins to put said items in before scanning, this is the equivalent of teaching someone how to catch a football with both hands and then one day suddenly announcing that the old way is illegal, and you instead have to reign the pigskin in with your face.

I looked quizzically at the TSA official who stood there shouting at everyone to do the opposite of what they’ve been trained to do for the last four years. He looked down, saw my prosthesis – I was in shorts – and said, “It’s part of our new MI program.” I replied, “Oh,” nodding wisely as if I understood the acronym. Then, realizing I had no idea what he was talking about, I then asked him, “What is MI?”

He told me, and though I tried to burn the words into my brain, they left it before I even boarded the aircraft an hour later. However, my best recollection is that MI stands for either (a) mitigated interference, (b) mitigated intervention, (c) minimal interference, or (d) minimal intervention. Whatever the acronym stands for, I said, “That sounds somewhat sinister.”

The TSA agent happily informed me that MI is a new program where TSA keeps us all safe by not doing any of the things that it has historically done. He made vague reference to “constant surveillance” and “behavioral analysis” as the building blocks of this new security effort. His smile then turned to a grimace as he noted that security lines tended to back up rapidly using this new method, because the public can’t figure out what to do in the absence of bins and the various accoutrements that are supposed to fill them.

I then went to walk into the full body scanner when I realized, to my horror, that it didn’t exist. Instead, I was looking at a basic metal detector. Since I was wearing a prosthesis that would undoubtedly trigger the device, the TSA agent waved me into the holding pen for People Who Have So Much Metal In Or On Them That They Will Cause the Metal Detector to Explode, where I waited for 5 minutes until a “male assist” could be located.

I received a full-body pat down – fond memories of getting groped between 2009-2012 swam through my head – and then swabbed my hands and the prosthesis. I got the “all clear,” retrieved my luggage and went on my way.

MI: a comparative analysis

luggage. In the non-MI world – let’s call it BIN (Bins Is Normal) – I have to reach into the outer zipper of my suitcase to extract my plastic bag of liquids and then do the same with the computer in my backpack. I also have to pull my belt off, which, after 40-plus years of practice, I’ve become somewhat proficient at. When you’re standing in a line waiting to get screened, each of these things give you something to do, which is good. It fills up time otherwise spent staring, dead-eyed, at other travelers for whom the concepts of removing liquids, computers, belts (and for non-amputees, shoes) apparently rival quantum mechanics in their complexity.

Moreover, because we’ve been trained for BIN, MI apparently results in even longer screening snarls. In other words, being asked to do less screws us up more than a complicated, multi-step process that 7 out of 10 people still haven’t mastered. I find that more depressing than amusing. Advantage: BIN

the machine. In the MI world, you don’t have to stand with your hands over your head while getting blasted with rays that will one day turn you into the Hulk. (Or, more likely, sterilize you.) You just go through a metal detector. While this may be fine for the average person with no metal in their body, it means that TSA agents (a) can’t visually see where the prosthesis is on a fancy high-tech monitor, and (b) therefore have to do a full pat-down of your entire body, even when the clothes you’re wearing reveal the metal item(s). After all, perhaps you have more metal concealed elsewhere.

I contrast, the BIN approach produces said hi-tech image with color-coded indicators revealing where the metal is. Once you walk through the machine, a TSA agent is already waiting to pat down only those areas where they see yellow and to swab them. No wait. No shouted “male assist.” Altogether more efficient for amputees. Advantage: BIN.

the exit. In BIN-ville, after you’ve been cleared, you have to saunter back to your suitcase, backpack, and 2 bins (one with your belt and liquids, the other with your computer), and you have to reassemble yourself. Computer back in backpack; liquids back in carry-on; belt looped through pants.

But in the world of MI, you retrieve your items and simply walk off. No assembly required. Advantage: MI.

miscellany. MI apparently depends on some form of surveillance we can’t see, combined with behavioral analysis. (For example, the guy who’s sweating profusely while clutching his suitcase to his chest with eyes closed and repeating an unintelligible mantra over and over? Yeah, he’d qualify for additional screening.) The problem with this is (a) for all of my NSA-inspired paranoia, I have a hard time believing there are thousands of new hidden cameras tucked away in America’s major airports and tens of thousands of workers examining every video feed produced from them to identify Johnny Danger, and (b) while I find most TSA agents to be lovely people, I’m pretty sure they’re not getting trained by profiling specialists at Quantico.

BIN, on the other hand, forces me to do lots of things that at least create the illusion that dangerous things could be located. I’ll take the illusion of security over the “let’s shrug and give it an acronym [MI]” approach to screening. Advantage: BIN.

Conclusion

In this highly scientific analysis, BIN clearly surpasses MI in almost every measurable way. So the next time you’re stuck in a security line that isn’t moving at all, look for those wonderful plastic bins. If you don’t see them, curse MI.

Two amps on a plane …

2 amps on a plane

Last week I flew from New York to Phoenix for a business meeting. This allowed me to hit the daily double in amputee-unfriendly terminals, with JFK’s Terminal 8 (American Airlines/US Air) – thanks for making sure not to repair the moving walkways, guys – and Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, which notched top honors for worst U.S. airport for amputees in my recent, highly-scientific analysis.

On the flight back to JFK, I strapped myself into my aisle seat in row 19. I’m not a particularly social creature when flying. I always fear that the friendly smile or casual sentence to my seat mate could devolve into several hours of semi-awkward discourse from which I can’t easily escape. So I followed my regular protocol: headphones on; reading materials in front of me; pretend that no one else exists. I’m hard to distract when in my Cone of Solitude.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel the vibrations as a tall passenger hopped down the aisle towards me en route to the restroom. You might think because I’m missing a limb that my first reaction was, “Hey, he must be an amputee!” But because I actively pretend that I’m not an amputee for so many of my waking hours, my reaction instead was, “Hey, this guy must have really hurt his foot and can’t weight bear; that sucks.” But in fact, my fellow passenger was missing his left leg above the knee, and he hopped right past into the bathroom a few rows behind me.

At this point, some version of the following internal conversation began.

“Should I introduce myself to him? No, he doesn’t want to be bothered speaking to another amputee. It’s not like we’re soul mates because we’re both missing limbs. But then again, I did used to sit on the Amputee Coalition Board of Directors. Don’t I have an obligation to introduce myself? Get over it, you’re not nearly that important. He doesn’t give a damn about your previous volunteer work history. But how often do I get the chance to speak to an amputee on a plane? I’ve been logging hundreds of thousands of miles over America and Europe over the last 8 years and I’ve never seen an AK hopping down the aisle. Will I ever get this chance again?”

And so on.

Eventually – and it took me about 3 minutes to make this life-altering decision – I got up and waited outside the bathroom door for my fellow limbless flyer to emerge. (Yes, it feels creepy to wait for someone outside the bathroom door. I once washed my hands at the same restaurant bathroom sink as Patriots owner Bob Kraft, but couldn’t say anything to him because, well, we were in the bathroom. (I patiently explained to my oldest son that no, it’s bad form to use the bathroom and then ask to shake hands and get an autograph from a famous person at the sink without it being wildly uncomfortable. I don’t think he’s convinced.))

As the door opened and he hopped out, I blurted this brilliant opening: “So you decided to go the non-prosthetic route, huh?” He grinned and said yes, he had never worn a prosthesis. He made some comments about how he had a short limb and thus, had opted instead for crutches. He had heard technology had changed and should probably try it, but this is how he’d lived his whole life.

In another incredibly smooth move, I lifted my pant leg to reveal my prosthesis to indicate this was why I was asking him the question. He graciously nodded and said, “I figured you were part of the club when you asked me.” (Translation: “Dude – I’m not a moron.”) From there, happily, things got better. I learned that his name is Eddie McGee, and he splits time between NY and L.A., where he acts. That led me to name drop some amputee acquaintances who happen to also appear in TV and film, and not surprisingly, he knew all of them.

“Yeah,” he said, “whenever there’s a role call for a young amputee to play a wounded vet, there’s about 15-20 of us who all show up for the same auditions every time.” He mentioned that he had appeared in one of the Law & Order series and was now promoting the film, The Human Race, which, judging by its poster (below), involves Eddie in a leading role and lots of blood.

The Human Race - Eddie McGee

He didn’t mention that he was actually the Season 1 winner of CBS’s Big Brother, which was fortunate since I’ve never watched a second of the show. He also noted that he was a recent convert to aqua-aerobics, saying, “I don’t care what people think, it’s an amazing workout.” Judging by the fact that it looked like Eddie could bench press me with little difficulty, I didn’t argue.

After talking for about 7 minutes, I told him I’d let him get back to his seat. As I followed him up the aisle, he leaned over and had a quick conversation with the man sitting next to me in my row. As buckled my seatbelt, I broke The Cone of Solitude and asked the Man in the Middle, “How do you guys know each other?”

“Oh, we just met on the first leg of this flight,” he explained. “Cool guy.” He then called the flight attendant over and asked her to purchase a drink for Eddie on his dime. (Eddie later reciprocated. It was amusing to watch him and my seat mate toast each other from 6 rows apart, but they managed to pull it off.) The Man in the Middle then said to me, “I almost never see amputees and now there are two of them on the same flight. What are the odds?”

I smiled at him. “Yeah, we’re taking over the world.”

the best and the worst: airports for amputees (part 2)

Airport #1

The view from the #1-ranked airport for amputees.

Last week I listed the three worst airports for amputees in the United States. This week, we turn to decidedly happier venues: the best of the best.

#3 Tampa International Airport

I’ve only flown out of Tampa twice, but both times I’ve had great experiences there. Tampa is the only “big” airport to crack the top 3, and like many big airports, it employs the hub and spoke approach to air travel: a central terminal for check-in, then a train to individual gates.

But unlike most big airports, Tampa doesn’t make you clear security in the main building. So unlike Atlanta and Denver – both of which made the “worst” list last week – you avoid standing in a massive security line with 20,054 other travelers. You instead first take the airtran to your specific terminal. Only then do you get subjected to TSA screening, with a reasonable number of people and, in my limited experience, excellent TSA agents.

“How excellent?” you ask.

I went through there early this year on a Sunday afternoon. The Patriots had a playoff game against the Houston Texans. When I arrived at security, only two things separated me from kickoff: (1) 10 minutes; and (2) a significant contingent of Canadian wheelchair rugby players immediately in front of me. I resigned myself to the fact that I would miss the first quarter, as 6 wheelchair athletes stood between me and the bar showing the game.

But a TSA official called for reinforcements, and suddenly, multiple agents materialized. I got screened, made the acquaintance of one of the Canadian athletes, walked to the bar and had an iced tea in front of me as the game began. I can’t overstate how amazing that last sentence is. At most airports, without multiple people requiring special screening in front of me, it takes 10 minutes for me to get screened. (Average breakdown: 3 minutes waiting for a “male assist” to be located; 3 minutes for pat down/swab results; 4 minutes to explain that the giant metal club in my suitcase is actually a shoehorn.)

But in Tampa, with a squadron of wheelchairs in front of me, I went from “guy on the line” to “guy watching Pats kill the Texans” in under 10 minutes. Because a TSA agent exercised rational judgment. It was a remarkable achievement.

Separate and apart from that, once you make it to the individual terminals, they’re laid out so that you don’t have to walk far to get to your gate. Tampa also has decent restaurants at the gates and more-than-adequate charging stations for people who (or computers that) require power.

#2 Reagan National (D.C.)

Reagan has many things going for it. You can access the DC Metro easily from the airport, getting you into the heart of the city in less than 15 minutes for only a few dollars. The TSA agents tend to be efficient and professional, and there are lots of them. It has a few excellent restaurants, albeit on the wrong side of (i.e., before) the security line. However, the eateries sit close enough to the screening areas that you can monitor line lengths and still make your flight without a problem. Once you clear security, there’s never far to walk to get to a gate, even if you’re at the most distant one in the terminal.

Also, Reagan houses lots of interesting people and sights. In the last few years, I’ve seen Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (she’s tiny), Chris Matthews (he’s not), sportswriter and ESPN personality Michael Wilbon (doing a radio spot from the luggage area) and the retired space shuttle on the back of a jetliner (thanks to the Reagan intercom system, which told everyone to look out the airport-facing windows to see the shuttle as it circled around DC).

The only bad thing about Reagan is that if I’m there, it generally means I’m flying back to LaGuardia, which received “honorable mention” honors in my list of worst airports.

#1 Long Beach Airport (CA)

I fly into Long Beach 6-10 times per year on average. It’s the smallest airport on this list, made even more delightful by recent renovations that transformed it from small, charming but slightly decrepit to small, charming, and well-appointed. Allow me to describe the highlights of the typical Long Beach experience.

  1. You get to enter and exit the plane directly from the tarmac, which is wonderfully old school. It’s much more impressive to see a jet from the ground than to just walk down a jet bridge.
  2. Because of 1, you can enter or exit either from the front or the back of the plane, which typically shortens the boarding/”deplaning” process.
  3. Many of the newly-refurbished gates have multiple charging stations and iPads for travelers to use.
  4. Excellent (and multiple) new food options, ranging from food court fare – none of which involves a national fast-food chain – to a decent restaurant/bar just past the security area when you enter the airport.
  5. Baggage claim, which I almost never use, is outside, a bonus given the typically stellar weather in Southern California.
  6. The rental car area is about 50 yards from the terminal/baggage claim. On one of the very rare occasions where I did bring a checked bag to Long Beach, I deplaned, walked through the terminal, procured my rental car, walked back to baggage claim, grabbed my bag and left the airport. Total time from plane doors opening to driving out of the airport? Fifteen minutes.
  7. I don’t think I’ve ever waited longer than 10 minutes on a security line at Long Beach over the past 7+ years. They always seem to have enough lines for the number of passengers coming through the airport.
  8. The TSA agents are almost unfailingly polite, friendly, and efficient. Notably, as of August, they still didn’t even have the full-body scanners that actually expedite the security process for amputees. So I emphasize efficiency in light of the fact that they’re still forced to do full pat-downs and more complete swabbing than any other airport on this list. When they get the scanners – which the TSA agent informed me were coming soon as he apologized for the “delay” I had to endure during my last trip through there a few weeks ago – they’ll be even faster.

Congrats, Long Beach! The winning airport gets … well, nothing, other than my continued cross-country loyalty.

Honorable Mention: Chicago Midway (not because it’s an awesome airport, but simply because it’s not O’Hare and you need to get to Chicago somehow), Knoxville (TN) (I used to have to go there at least annually for Amputee Coalition Board Meetings and enjoyed the short walking distances and decent amenities), and Terminal 5 at JFK (JFK has 7 different terminals, each of which is like its own little airport and which vary dramatically from god-awful (American, Delta (though they’re renovating) to awesome (T5, which houses JetBlue and has multiple good restaurants, an enormous food court, decent shopping, and nice gates that are within easy walking distance)).

the best and the worst: airports for amputees (part 1)

09.10.13 the best and the worst ...

Part of the never-ending walk from gate to ground transportation at the Nation’s 3rd-Worst Airport for Amputees.

While I haven’t had the luxury of visiting every airport in the United States, sometimes it feels like I have. I therefore deem myself qualified to offer a two-part series on the best and worst U.S. airports for amputees.

As you will see, key factors include navigability and a nice space to inhabit when not walking. Caveat: I don’t make use of wheelchairs or other assistance of any kind in airports. This makes “distance walked” a critical factor for me when creating these rankings. If you use a wheelchair or other airport assistance to navigate airports, you may disagree with these results.

With that in mind, let’s kick off the review with the bottom-feeders.

the worst

3. Hartsfield-Jackson Int’l Airport (Atlanta)

God help you if the train shuttling misbegotten souls trapped in the purgatory between your gate and the main terminal breaks down. (And sometimes, it does.)

Earlier this year, just for the thrill of it, I eschewed the airtran. I figured it would be an interesting experiment trying to walk the distance the train covers, in much the same way that Les Stroud believes surviving alone in the wilderness for a week with an empty jar of peanut butter and the foam of a broken snowmobile seat makes for a nice vacation.

I happened to be using a pedometer as part of a corporate wellness initiative at the time. I took a picture of it before I began my journey. It showed 4286 steps. Thirty-six minutes later – 36! – I climbed into a taxi: 7,550 steps.

In other words, from the time I woke up, I (1) did whatever it is I do at home before leaving for the airport, (2) walked through the entire JFK Delta terminal in NY, and (3) still logged only 1022 steps more than it took me to get from my gate in Atlanta to ground transportation.

“Dave,” you might say, “that’s a stupid reason to hate Atlanta’s airport. No one walks; you take the train. You inflicted this upon yourself.” Well, so long as the train is working you’re right. And as anyone can tell you who uses that airport regularly, the train isn’t always working.

But for the record, the walk from the gate to the airtran ain’t exactly a quick jaunt in its own right. And somehow, no matter where you are in Hartsfield, there are always too many people for the amount of space allotted. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an area 50 feet wide or 15, you’re forced to cut around and through an unending sea of humanity, a venture reminiscent of the Cal kickoff returner dodging Stanford defenders and (ultimately) the marching band on his way to the end zone. (Without the exciting and historic payoff at the end.) And there’s not a decent restaurant to be found in the entire place.

Lots of walking, too many people, crappy food. Otherwise, there’s a lot to love about the place if you’re trying to navigate it on a prosthesis.

2. Denver Int’l Airport

Seen from far away as you drive through the never-ending emptiness leading up to it, DIA looks like a fascinating architectural achievement. Once inside, the splendor quickly fades and you have an immediate decision to make: should you go through ground-level security, which is nearby but invariably entraps more people than the population of a small country, or journey to the far-away second-level security gates?

Pick your poison: stay nearby and wait forever with 275,000 people, or walk a great distance and wait just as long behind 8 people because there’s only 1 TSA agent for every 3 lines of passengers. It’s like a cruel joke.

I also had one of my least-favorite TSA experiences there when, at 10:30 at night, I arrived at security in the lower level and was taken to a Cast-Scope machine to get my prosthesis x-rayed. After 10 minutes of failed attempts, the agent informed me that the Cast-Scope machine was down. The solution? Walk half a mile to the next-nearest Cast-Scope. And then learn that the TSA agent doesn’t know how to turn the new machine on, leading me to wonder whether the problem lay in the technology or the person (not) operating it.

Final complaint – while DIA has some nice restaurants, they’re all located in the pre-security part of the airport. In other words, to enjoy them you have to arrive at the airport 10 hours early, as you still have to clear TSA screening after you eat.

1. Phoenix Sky Harbor Int’l Airport

I’ve read books about how early Texans, upon reaching the frontier and seeing the Great Plains for the first time, were both amazed and terrified by the vast, landmark-less void of waist-high grass unfolding in front of them. Apparently, the designers of Phoenix’s airport wanted to instill the same feelings of shock and fear in the hapless travelers wandering its byways.

When you finally make it to your gate, personnel should give you a medal and those tinfoil ponchos usually reserved for marathon runners. Handing out flares for the lost should be standard issue. Running magazines should publish 6-month training schedules for travelers gearing up for a trip to Phoenix.

It’s hard to describe just how much walking you have to do in this airport. Locals may protest, pointing to the numerous moving walkways linking different parts of the structure to each other. Unfortunately for them, my rating already takes that into account – I use those walkways and all of my foregoing comments still apply.

Even worse, after crossing much of the state to reach your gate, you learn that the airport’s designers apparently thought that every jet has only 45 passengers. The serial absence of adequate gate seating makes the 30 minutes before your flight feel like you’re in a refugee camp. Bodies litter the floor. It wouldn’t surprise you to see tin-roofed shacks sprout up if your flight got delayed.

Finally, for reasons I cannot divine, most of the expanses you have to traverse in Sky Harbor are either an incline or decline. To get to the never-ending walkways connecting terminals, you have to walk uphill from your gate. You then enjoy an additional climb on the moving walkway. Eventually, your ascent ends and you’re now on going downhill. Congratulations, you’re (maybe, if you’re lucky) halfway to your final destination. When you hit carpet again after the descent, you go from 75 MPH to 3 MPH in 2 steps. And then you walk down another ramp to your gate.

Distances better traveled by car than foot; most of it uphill or downhill; and chronic seating shortages when you finally get to your destination. Congratulations, Sky Harbor, for winning the inaugural less is more Worst Airport in the USA competition!

Honorable Mention: Chicago O’Hare (Lots of walking and an on-time departure rate of .000000000032%), Orlando (huge security lines and a different screening process – the direct result of TSA agents having no idea what to do with me – every time I go there), and LaGuardia (despite generally short walking distances, one of the dingiest, most depressing airports in the USA; think the “City of Ashes” depicted in Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby).

Next week – the 3 best airports for amputees.

it’s not me!

it's not me 06.25.13

When traveling through airports I typically get from the curb through security in less than 30 minutes. That includes the time it takes TSA officials to screen my prosthesis. But occasionally, things go horribly wrong. Last Wednesday was one of those times.

I arrived at JFK at the ungodly hour of 5:30 AM for an 8:00 AM international flight. I had taken care of all my planning and packing in advance: I had an assigned seat; I had packed the previous afternoon; I had my electronic boarding passes on my phone. Best of all, I was traveling light.

My journey to London consisted of a Wednesday AM flight to Heathrow, a cab to the hotel, a presentation at that hotel on Thursday morning, and a train back to Heathrow to catch a Thursday evening flight back to NY. So the packing process proved quick and easy. In went the dark grey business suit I wear twice a year, a dress shirt, a tie, underwear, socks, dress shoes, the battery charger for my prosthesis and my Dopp kit. My roll-on bag barely half-full, I threw everything onto the x-ray machine’s conveyor belt, informed the TSA officials that I had my shoes on because I wear a prosthesis, and went through the full body scan.

No problem.

“Just need to check your shoes,” said the TSA agent on the other side. Then things got funky.

This particular pair of sneakers, which I hadn’t worn in over a month, set off the Explosives Trace Detector machine. “Can you take your shoes off?” the agent asked me. “Sure,” I replied, pulling them off while they proceeded to swab my hands. The hand swab went into the ETD machine and came back negative for explosives.

The agent now proceeded with the full-body pat-down, swabbing his latex gloves when finished. He inserted the sample into the ETD machine. Positive.

The guy screening me now called in his female supervisor to explain the situation to her. She, in turn, called in her supervisor, a brightly-smiling woman who walked over to me and said, “We’re so sorry for the inconvenience. We’ll try to get you moving as quickly as possible. Have you taken any new medications today or done anything out of the ordinary?” “No,” I answered, “and would it be possible to recalibrate the machine before doing anything else?”

This question violates one of my principal rules in all TSA dealings: don’t suggest that you know their job better than they do. However, my case had already been kicked up two levels beyond the screening agents, and this woman seemed in lovely spirits, so I gave it a shot. She continued to grin at me, cocked her head sideways, and said, “Oh, so you’ve been through this a few times before, haven’t you?”

I tried, unsuccessfully, to smile just as broadly back at her, but as agents continued to scurry around me, it dawned on me that no one was recalibrating the ETD machine. The machine and I had both spoken, and the machine had won.

The serious first-level TSA supervisor pressed a button and the ETD machine started spitting out lengthy receipts that, I guessed, established that my suitcase and clothes were laced with TNT and plastic explosives.

They swabbed my computer. Negative. They swabbed the interior of my rolling bag. Positive. Agents broke out their walkie-talkies, calling in reinforcements. The smiling leader came back to me and told me that they needed higher-ranking people to get involved in my case. I thanked her with a grimace and sat in a plastic chair, watching as the agents started to destroy my careful packing job, piece by piece.

They x-rayed my dress shoes – the same ones I had taken through airports 10 times in the last 5 months – and found nothing suspicious. But when they swabbed them? Positive. I threw up my hands and looked at one of the agents. “I’m telling you, it’s the machine,” I said. “It has to be the machine. I travel two, sometimes three times a month. This has never happened before.”

The search-and-destroy-Dave’s-luggage mission continued while we awaited The Powers That Be to descend from wherever in Terminal 7 they currently were. Out came all my business cards. Out came the chargers and power adaptors. Out came my reading glasses, my pens, and my headphones.

Frustrated, I tried to keep my cool, arms crossed against my chest, imagining the interrogation I’d have to withstand. Memories of the movie Rendition briefly flitted through my head.

And then a young male TSA agent came over and swabbed the sneakers I had put back on my feet again. And he took them to the second ETD machine in the security area.

Negative.

He delivered the result to the mid-level supervisor in a quiet voice. “I’m telling you, it’s the machine,” I said under my breath, to no one in particular.

And then the reinforcements arrived. Three older, large men wearing polo shirts with the words “Explosives Agent” on the breast. They walked right up to me, smiled genuinely, and asked me how I was doing. “Fine, thanks,” I said, making sure to smile. Each of these guys topped 6 feet, and they wore their khaki cargo pants with various black metal accoutrements attached to the multiple loops and pockets like a second skin. I had the distinct impression from their bearing that previous military experience had formed a significant part of their respective pasts.

After determining from our quick conversation that I apparently did not pose an imminent threat to national security, the lead Explosives Agent pulled his small flashlight out, turned it on, bent over and peered into the ETD machine’s swab receptor for approximately 3 seconds. He stood up to his full height and turned to the mid-level TSA agent.

“It’s missing the [indistinguishable] ring. You can’t use this machine without the [indistinguishable] ring. Without it, the inside of the machine is contaminated and compromised. It’ll give you false positives. You need to stop using this machine. Now.”

He turned to me. “Terribly sorry, sir, for the inconvenience. We’re going to get you moving immediately. We just need to give you a private pat down and we’ll have you on your way.”

I thanked him and the conversation turned to what I did for a living, which led to a friendly discussion about the wonders of modern prosthetics. Two male TSA agents pulled me into a private room and conducted a full pat-down while I stared upon the wreckage that was my formerly-organized packing job.

They swabbed their gloves and put the sample in the Explosives Agent-approved ETD machine. Negative.

“Thank you sir, have a nice day.”

One hour after entering security, I sighed, and started repacking my luggage.