Recently I had the opportunity to recieve feedback about the TSA Cares program from Lisa. She kindly agreed to provide a guest post to share her experience. Thanks Lisa!
Since my LADA diagnosis a few years back, I am always on the lookout for ways to make things easier in the world of diabetes. I like to pass on what I have learned to anyone who will listen, and am willing to accept input as well. Traveling with diabetes supplies has been quite an issue. Each airport, and even each TSA agent can respond differently to a person with medical needs. Lack of consistency seemed to be a big issue and a big source of anxiety for me. Before I would fly, I would search blogs relating to incidents involving the TSA and fellow diabetics hoping to glean any information that might prove useful. THEN I would get on the TSA website, print out policies, highlight pertinent information, and add it to my “travel folder.” I know, it sounds like a lot of work, but it helped me feel in control. Yes I am a bit of a control freak. I prefer to call it “organized” however, and often my organization proved helpful, although there was still the issue of inconsistency. When I was told about TSA Cares, which is a new program within the TSA designed to offer assistance to passengers with medical conditions or disabilities, I was eager to learn more. I got the opportunity in July to really “test the waters” and would like to share my experience as well as give some tips and insider information to help the process go more smoothly.
First, a little background on TSA Cares. The new program is made up of Transportation Security Officers, Leads, and Supervisors who have volunteered their time to receive additional training in how to aid passengers who require additional assistance getting through security checkpoints. By calling the TSA Cares toll free number (1-855-787-2227) you can arrange to receive checkpoint support for you or a family member at your specific airport location. The call center will ask for your name, email, and flight information. This information should be passed on to the Customer Support Manager and/or the Coordination Center, who in turn will assign a Passenger Support Specialist to meet you. When the program works as it should, the stress of getting through security is greatly reduced. You have an advocate at your side whose whole focus is getting you through smoothly.
As with any new program, there can be glitches. I experienced a couple, starting with the call center. When I called and gave my flight and contact information I asked the associate if someone would contact me before my flight. I was told, “That’s not how it works. When you get to security, ask for a Passenger Support Specialist. If there isn’t one, just ask for a supervisor.” When I inquired as to how this was any different than not having the program since no one would talk to me beforehand, she responded again saying, “That’s not how it works. You will only be contacted if there is a problem.” So on my day of travel I was not sure what to expect, and as you can imagine, a little anxious. I got to the initial checkpoint, gave my name and asked for a Passenger Support Specialist. It became very clear very quickly that the TSA agent had no idea what I was talking about. While I tried to explain, another agent came up the first, and with her back to me said, “What’s all this about?” Not a promising start. Exasperated, I just asked for a supervisor. After a moment or two, up walked an angel, glowing with luminescence, reaching out her hand to offer assistance! Ok, so not glowing, but an angel nonetheless. She was a supervisor named Wendy who also happened to be a Passenger Support Specialist. When I explained my dilemma, she told me that they had not received any of my information. If they had, they would have contacted me ahead of time and met me BEFORE I even got to security. “I knew it!” I responded with satisfaction. At that point, I told her what devices I had on me, what supplies I had with me, and my preferred method of screening. All went smoothly from there as she stayed by my side through the process. Wendy also gave me the name of the Customer Support Manager for the airport and encouraged me to share my experience with him so that they may try to find out where the problems were occurring. She then reassured me that they do in fact care, and want the program to work. I thanked her for the help and information, and promised to contact the Customer Support Manager.
Now for the proof that TSA really does care. I contacted Bob, the aforementioned Customer Support Manager, and told him about my experience. He confirmed that there was a breakdown in communication and they had not received my information. He didn’t only apologize, but offered a tip on how to prevent such a breakdown in the future. Bob suggested that when calling TSA Cares with travel information, also ask for direct contact numbers or email addresses for the Customer Support Manager and/or the Coordination Center. Personally contacting the right people ensures that the information gets where it needs to go. In his words, “If we get contacted more than once, that is ok. If we don’t get contacted, that is not ok and it is not helpful to anyone.” Then he personally forwarded my information to the Customer Support Manager at the airport for my return flight. He also made sure that I had their contact information. His email included a promise that, “. . .we will get this together soon.”
When the program works as expected, it’s great! This is what I really want to share about TSA Cares. I want everyone to know what is available and how to utilize the program so it will stay. If we don’t use it, we may lose it! Here is how it is supposed to work and what finally happened: The day before my return flight I received a phone call. It was Vanessa, my Passenger Support Specialist, wanting to arrange a meeting place. She then gave me her phone number so that I could let her know when I was arriving at the airport. She was not only there waiting for me, but even took my bag. She checked my boarding pass and ID, and we proceeded to “jump” the line to the screening area. (I must admit, this was my favorite part. Seeing the glares from one gentleman prompted me to respond, “Hey buddy, I had to get a chronic, incurable disease to get this kind of VIP treatment!”) The screeners were very courteous, listened to my requests, and we even had a few laughs. I know it sounds ideal, and the experience can depend on the individual, but I want to give credit where credit is due. They were great. I learned that many of the Passenger Support Specialists volunteered because they have friends or family members who have medical needs and they understand the challenges. They want to help. I really do believe that the TSA is trying, and positive behavior deserves reinforcement.
Time for my tips. As passengers we do have rights, but along with those rights, we have responsibilities as well. The TSA has a job to do, and we have places to go. We share the common goal of getting through security without complication or confrontation. I offer the following advice based on my personal experience and research:
1. Be prepared! Get on the TSA website. Know before you arrive at security what is allowed and what accommodations are made for individuals with medical conditions who also carry medical supplies. Knowing this information ahead of time will help you pack and prepare. Think about your preferred method of screening ahead of time. For example, I am not comfortable with my supplies going through x-ray. I prefer a visual inspection and a pat down. (I always ask them to put on clean gloves before handling my supplies, since in addition to being a control freak, I am an admitted germaphobe as well!) Also, keep all of your medical supplies together in one bag, or container. Include any travel letters or related information that may be necessary. I have been thanked repeatedly for being organized and prepared. It really does help the experience go more smoothly.
2. Use the TSA Cares program! In order to arrange for a Passenger Support Specialist, you must call the toll free TSA Cares number (1-855-787-2227) at least 72 hours in advance of your flight. After taking your information if they are unable to give you phone numbers or email addresses for the Customer Support Manager or the Coordination Center for your specific airports, you can also call The TSA Contact Center (1-866-289-9673) and select Option 5. You will need to enter a three-digit airport code to access the information. If for some reason you are unable to make prior arrangements, you can always ask if there is a Passenger Support Specialist on duty. However, to ensure you get the proper assistance, you need to call ahead.
3. Give yourself plenty of time to get through security! I cannot stress enough how important this tip is. Giving yourself extra time means you don’t have the added stress of missing your flight should a complication arise. I have noticed a common thread in some incidents at security. People show up too late, security takes longer than anticipated, and tempers flare. You know you have additional accommodations that have to be made, so give the TSA time to make them. So what if you sit around at the gate a little longer? It’s much preferred to allowing those stress hormones to elevate your blood sugar or having to run to catch your plane!
4. Have a positive attitude! If you go into security with a bad attitude, it stands to reason that you will have a bad experience. I know that not everyone you encounter may warm and fuzzy, but overall the TSA tries to be pleasant and professional. People tend to react to what is in front of them. Be calm, be friendly and keep in mind that Passenger Support Specialists volunteered for their position. They want to make the experience better for you, and have you best interest in mind.
In closing, I want to reiterate that these experiences are my own. I only offer them as a means to share information that could make traveling with diabetes a little easier. I also wish commend the TSA for moving in the right direction. I am hopeful they will continue to do so! Since programs, contact information, and policies can change from time to time, I would encourage you to reach out to the TSA directly for questions and concerns.