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SOP for TSA and PWD.

This past week, when leaving Las Vegas and heading home to Rhode Island, I had another new experience.  The TSA pat-down agent, after making a horrified face when I told her I was wearing an insulin pump, told me she has to check the pump itself and then my skin where I was wearing it. Since it was in my bra, it was a new-to-me, highly intrusive variation on the different-in-every-city pat down procedure. When asked why she had to inspect my skin, she said it was standard.

I told her I had never experienced that before, and she said, “Well, then everyone else was not doing their job.”

First time in ten years I’ve ever had that particular experience.  So I guess everyone else wasn’t doing their job this last decade?  I have seen my fair share of airports, and most of the time, going through security is fine.  Except the pat-downs keep getting weirder and weirder.

I don’t enjoy the pat-down experience, but I do it about 90% of the time.  Why do I opt for a pat-down?  For my previous pumps, their company websites advised to avoid metal detectors, etc. (Animas, Medtronic) and my current pump suggests the same:

“Your pump should not be exposed to X-ray screening used for carry-on and checked luggage. Newer full body scanners used in airport security screening are also a form of X-ray and your pump should not be exposed to them. Notify the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Agent that your pump cannot be exposed to X-ray screening and request alternate means of screening other than X-ray. 

Your pump has been designed to withstand common electromagnetic interference including airport metal detectors.”  — from Important Safety Information on the Tandem Diabetes Care website

Since I don’t go through the metal detector unless I’m traveling with my daughter (details here), my only option appears to be a pat-down. assures me that if I opt for a pat-down at the airport, instead of going through the metal detector or the advanced imaging technology revolving door thing*, this is what I’ll experience:

“If you cannot or choose not to be screened by advanced imaging technology or a walk-through metal detector, you will undergo a pat-down procedure instead. You may also undergo a pat-down procedure if you alarm the screening equipment and/or at random. The pat-down will be conducted by a TSA officer of the same gender and you may ask that the TSA officer change their gloves before performing a pat-down. The TSA officer will ask whether you have an injury or tender area to treat such areas accordingly during a pat-down.

You may request to have a pat-down in private and be accompanied by a companion of your choice. You may bring your carry-on baggage to the private screening area and may request a chair to sit if needed. You will not be asked to remove or lift any article of clothing to reveal sensitive body areas. Please note a second TSA officer will always be present during a private pat-down screening. Learn more from these frequently asked questions.”  — from the website, under Pat-Down Screening

TSA has a number you can call for further explanation.  There’s even a card that I can present, making my case on paper that I’d like a minute to explain myself.  And our friends at the American Diabetes Association have provided some good, “what to expect” information on their website.

I’ve had dozens of pat-downs and these experiences are diverse but not remarkably so.  Sometimes the woman who is screening me asks me to touch the Dexcom transmitter and have my hands swabbed; other times, the transmitter is ignored entirely.  Sometimes they check the bottoms of my feet.  Sometimes they confess that they have a diabetes connection.  Sometimes they want me to hold the insulin pump in my hands during the screening while other times it’s okay to keep it where it is.  I’m always asked if I want a private screening.  I’m always asked if I can stand for five minutes.  And I’m always asked to face in the direction of my belongings.

Thankfully, most often the security experience is completely mellow and fine.

But there are some weird, unsettling moments.  Like the TSA agents who run their hand from my ankle to my groin, jamming their hand forcefully against areas of my body that I’d rather not have jammed.  Or the time I was asked to take my pants down for a (in my experiences) rare visual inspection of my sensor.  There was one time that a lady tickled me the entire time (Dave Rogers from Dexcom can attest to that awkwardness, as he watched, horrified, from the next aisle over), but that was more weird than wrong.  There was the time I was made to feel like my rights had been stripped.  And it’s not always the physical acts taking place that are varied, but the response from TSA.  Apologetic, apathetic, or stoic expressions from the TSA agent are easy to roll with; the moments where I feel judged or like I’m annoying them for opting out are not as fun.

There doesn’t appear to be a true standard operating procedure for interactions between TSA and people with diabetes, but there should be.  I should not have my genitals slammed by an agent.  I should know whether or not my sternum will be examined during a screening.  My medical situation should not keep anyone from doing their job, but I should know what to truly expect so that I can prepare, not be blindsided by the different ways that TSA executes this screening.  There are lots of resources I can point to that outline my rights, but I need to remember what they are in the moment of examination and stand up for myself.  Because no one wants to see my underpants.  And I sure as hell don’t want to show them.


 *  Revolving doors are terrifying.  I’ve gotten stuck in them more than once and it’s super awkward and always embarrassing.  I wish I had more of an Elf approach.  

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jane #

    Dumb question: why don’t you go through the metal detector? I avoid putting my pump through the x-ray machine with my carry-on luggage, but I always thought the walk-through metal detector was okay.

    TSA agents are like snowflakes, aren’t they? Everyone is different.

    (When you’re breastfeeding AND a type 1 diabetic, they’ll let you through with ANYTHING!)

    03/16/16; 1:21 pm
    • Unless I’m traveling with my kid, they don’t let me use the metal detector. It’s the weird tube of detection or a pat-down.

      03/16/16; 3:27 pm
  2. Lesley #

    I’ve had this happen before – once. I was actually taken to a back room, with three female TSA agents, and patted down all over my bra (where the pump was). I don’t really know what’s right or wrong here, but I always leave a good 30 minute leeway just for that fun.

    03/16/16; 2:32 pm
  3. Martha #

    I feel like my TSA experience has gotten better since I started removing my pump and asking for it to be hand-checked. I almost always get my fingers tested for explosive residue after I go through whatever machine, and only occasionally do I get a pat-down or a wanding. So far I’ve not been taken to a little room but I suppose it could just be a matter of time!

    03/16/16; 4:13 pm
    • Abbott Smith #

      I do the same thing. Unclip my pump and pass it around the equipment for a hand inspection. They always do the bomb sniffer thing with it. I also lift my shirt to show the CGM transmitter. So far have not had an invasive pat down.

      03/16/16; 8:45 pm
  4. It really is the uncertainty of it all that is the worst, isn’t it? Never knowing exactly what to expect, because the process is so different every time. That just isn’t right. And it’s mostly why I decided to sign up for pre-check. It made the airport so much easier this past trip, and I’m hopeful it will continue in the future!!

    03/16/16; 5:11 pm
    • Ditto, i broke down for the pre-check to avoid these experiences and it has helped immensely! (except for the random times it is not available and I’m once again subject to the potential show-down with the officers).

      03/24/16; 6:05 pm
  5. Kerri,
    It was exactly one year ago from your TSA horror story date that I sent you a photo of my duct taped suitcase from the Vegas airport. I was sobbing in a room full of burly women frisking my delicate parts. They ripped out my pump and shredded my suitcase. I was coming from the happy thoughts of being around peeps with betes all weekend.

    I was sobbing. The pilot had to come out from the aircraft to get verbal confirmation that I was OK to fly. Bologna Bullshit!!!

    I am so sorry you too experienced the Vegas airport panty brigade.


    03/16/16; 5:12 pm
    • OMG “airport panty brigade.” That made me grimace and laugh out loud, all at the same time. I’m so sorry that happened to you!!!

      03/16/16; 8:57 pm
  6. Missy #

    I just travelled last week and I literally lifted up my tank top( my pump was clipped to my waistband and my Dexcom was on my hip towards the back… I didn’t want them to pull anything off so I just bared it all… If people want to look at my chunky diabetic belly then go for it… I think I shocked them a little with my straightforwardness and my tattooed sleeves and my Mohawk they didn’t want to give me any problems… I was expecting the worst, but this time around wasn’t so bad. By the way, has anyone out there ever have their pump just not work, after 8 hours of 400s and 2 bolus’ and no carbs I removed it and it looked like the Canula was a little hooked on the end… I use the t90. Any tips to avoid this? Boy it really sucks watching the Dexcom hover on high:(

    03/16/16; 7:59 pm
    • Leah Moynihan #

      I do the same–pull out my pump and lift my shirt–it sort of scares them off. I still have to get swabbed every time. And I do go through that revolving door thing–it doesn’t save me the swab but it does save the pat down. I realize this is against my device makers advice, but the devices have continued to work after hundreds of flights and I haven’t given up my right to avoid being touched by strangers.

      03/18/16; 7:54 am
  7. Nick Argento #

    sorry you had to go through this. TSA agents do not have the right to make up their own rules.
    I walk through the current machines in US airports, because they do not use x-ray at all, they use surface scanning, with 1/200th the energy of a phone call, per TSA website. The reason that the websites for devices say to ask for manual checks is CYA, and because they can not be sure what every airport uses in the US and abroad, now and in the future. In the US, the current ProVision machines are safe for diabetes equipment, there is no x-ray, and I have walked thru them more than 100 times with no problem. I hold it up, announce it is an insulin pump, and they swab it or my hands or both generally. Metal detectors are also no problem. I refuse to volunteer to be groped by TSA. The diabetes companies are doing a disservice to PWD1 by their gutless stance, in my view

    I actually would print out what the TSA website says are your rights if you volunteer for manual inspection.

    03/16/16; 9:09 pm
  8. e-i #

    Learned something about revolving doors while leaving my recent endo appt. Revolving door stopped and a hospital employee told me it stopped because I got too close to it. I stepped back and it started again. Not sure why that design feature was built in but now I know how to keep it moving, wonder if there is a trick to make it move faster.

    03/16/16; 10:31 pm
    • I ended up getting stuck in one because my roller suitcase was wedged in the door. 🙂

      03/17/16; 9:07 am
  9. Charlotte Zich #

    You had me worried with this one. I don’t often fly, but I do have to go through screenings frequently. I wear an OmniPod and I looked it up. Both the pod and the CGM are safe to go thought the X-ray machines. I sure wasn’t looking forward to the back room treatment!

    03/16/16; 10:48 pm
  10. Natasha Dedes #

    I always have a hell of a time getting thru airport security. I too have been told other people weren’t doing their jobs correctly when I say I’ve never had this done before. Hold your pump and let me check your hands for explosives, always happens to me. I too hate the pat downs, and the TSA people that try to tell me that I can go thru the scanner without interfering with my pump. I literally had to wait 45 mins once for a female officer to pat me down. I got so sick of it one year, I finally decided to to bite the bullet and pay for the TSA pre-check. Sssooo worth it. Just go thru the metal detector put my bags thru the x-ray and I’m done. Saves a lot of time and aggravation. I would recommend it for any Type 1 that travels often. 🙂

    03/16/16; 11:02 pm
  11. I travel quite a bit too, and before I had my pump (about a year ago), I often opted out because I’m just suspicious of these new technologies they say is totally safe (like X-rays used to be for pregnant women…) And I got patted down with no attitude, always super friendly and kind people.

    Since I’ve been opting out and stated that it’s because of a medical device, I’ve had several TSA agents give me a hard time! They’ve said things like, ‘you understand medical devices can go through?’, or ‘it’s not an X-ray so it’s safe’, or ‘You WANT to opt out?’ (after I said I need to opt out due to a medical device.)

    All different for sure! I’m planning to get the Pre-Check too!

    03/17/16; 2:07 am
  12. Sandy Brooks #

    Unbelievable!! So sorry u had to go thru this!! Coming home from AADE in New Orleans in August was the worst experience I’ve had w TSA so far. I had a TSA Cares advocate w me when I left Boston which was a super experience. At the time I booked my Boston TSA Cares representative, I booked one for the return flight from New Orleans.

    When it was time to go home, I called TSA to arrange where I should meet the agent, I was told there was no record of my request and they didn’t have a rep available to help me. OK, I figured I had flown before and dealt with TSA enough on my own that I could do it again. Boy, was I wrong!!!

    The 2 TSA agents at security were belligerent that were at the gate and verbally abused me telling me I wasn’t special so therefore I wasn’t getting a pat down. They pointed out to me that people go thru the scanner w insulin pumps all the time, so I should just “suck it up & go thru like a good little girl!”

    Now, being from Boston, I don’t back down when challenged when I know I’m right, so I insisted on a pat down. They made me wait 30 mins before they called for another female agent for my pat down & the woman whom I had been dealing with towered over me and could easily cause me bodily harm, took me aside and pointed out the uniformed New Orleans police officer standing nearby. She told me, “All I have to do is say the word and he”ll arrest u, so watch it or u”ll spend tonight in jail and not on a flight home!” I was TERRIFIED!! But still requested to speak to a supervisor and made a formal complaint…that went absolutely no where!!! on a happy note, I didn’t get arrested!!!!

    SO, I can relate to ur TSA pain!!!! I’m still terrified to fly to FFL in a few months just cuz of that last TSA encounter although I know it probably was a once in a lifetime experience. Hang in there!!! Hopefully ur pregnant belly will give u good karma w TSA!!!! HUGS!!!!

    03/21/16; 10:12 am
  13. Staci #

    TSA logic — usually I have no issues going through security at my small hometown-ish airport, just the bigger airports (always pat downs, 50/50 if tears show up depending on the human decency of the agents). This particular airport wasn’t big enough airport to have a full body x-ray scanner (which I refuse to go through with my pump anyway), and just has the walk-through metal detector. I’ve been able to go through many times with my pump in my pocket, sometimes not even declaring it, with no issue whatsoever. However I have always declared my diabetes supplies coming through the x-ray belt in my carry-on luggage. This last go-round, I declared my supplies as always, including my very small juice boxes, and was told that if I wanted to keep the juice boxes, I was required to have to go through a pat down. This wasn’t because I was wearing a pump (I hadn’t told them about it yet when the juice box fiasco started), not because anything was alarming, not because I requested a pat-down, but because I had 2 juice boxes to send through the x-ray machine as I have always had with me when going through security, with my insulin and other diabetes supplies.
    When I questioned the agent about this ‘new’ procedure, she informed me just what Kerri was told — that it’s always been the procedure and other people just haven’t been doing their jobs properly.
    Faced with the infallible pat-down logic presented to me, I threw the juice boxes away in front of the agent saying I’d rather not have the pat-down, walked through the metal detector with no alarms (didn’t even declare that I was wearing a pump), got my things, and went to the vending machine for a back-up bottle of juice when I got to the terminal. Even though it cost me $3-4, I wasn’t going to allow that nonsense to happen to me. I hate the frustration the security/screening process can bring!

    03/21/16; 4:23 pm
    • Juice boxes have been worse than the pump itself in my experience…

      once I was going abroad for ~3 weeks and unsure if I’d be able to access quick juice boxes so I brought a case of them. The agent said he had to open them all for testing. When I asked what good that does, he said I was welcome to drink them right there. Umm, clearly NO training on T1D basics!
      I was able to talk him into testing a few at random and leaving the rest, so I got through with at least a small supply for the trip. But what a ridiculous experience.

      03/24/16; 6:16 pm
  14. My husband travels frequently (like every week ) and has type 1. He opted to do the tsa precheck and hasn’t had issues since then. Might be worth looking into since you are a frequent traveler–for him it’s been priceless as he goes through 3+ airports a week. It’s not that much moneyand he’s had to meet some pretty tough flight times that regular security and pat downs would have made him miss the flight for.

    03/22/16; 9:18 am

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