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? 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.


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.