THE AIRPORT & THE TSA

I have always felt like there’s a flame inside of me, just pushing on my skin to get out, ignited by the most undefined and indescribable things in life. It’s like I’m meant to do something more than the “normal” life, more than my nine to five job with happy hours every week followed by bill pays and errands on the weekends. I have found my inner flame is most energetic, most creative, and truly comes to life as soon as I receive approval from the TSA that I am free to board my flight.

It’s a process of course, getting through the TSA. Yes, there’s the normal and tedious procedure of taking off your shoes, belt, coat; putting your laptop in a bin; digging for your liquids; and hoping nothing in your bag causes any suspicion (a true traveller will have their bag packed so tightly that the thought of anyone unzipping it causes the most unneeded anxiety).

But for me, the process isn’t over there. I must wait as others pass by me, quickly slipping through the x-ray machine. I dream of the day I will be able to get through security that quickly. As I wait, the cookie cutter process begins –

“Can you walk?”

“No.”

“FEMALE ASSIST! Ma’am, someone will be right here to help you.” I wait, of course, patiently (which anyone that knows me well will understand this is a feat in and of itself). I’ve never understood why it needs to be a woman. I’m being patted down in the middle of an airport in front of thousands of people. If some man was going to get his jollies off of touching my not-so-perfect stomach, well then, so be it. And besides, these are TSA officers. Has anyone ever seen an attractive TSA officer? Nothing against them – they are simply doing their job and dressing as the government has told them to – but seriously, the TSA is not where I’d be going to find my next date.

Anyway, my TSA woman arrives and insists, I mean insists that she must push me to the designated pat down area. Again, for those that don’t know me, I am very independent and do not like being told that I am unable to do something on my own, so this unsolicited act of pushing me like I’m in a stroller just makes my skin crawl. I’ve learned to tell them that I am capable of doing this myself, and sometimes they let me, but my thousands of airplane adventures have taught me that arguing with the TSA is like running the wrong way down an escalator.

Once I’m at the pat down area, I proceed to extend my arms and wait for the woman to go through her mandated series of questions.

“Have you been through this before?”

“Yes, hundreds of times. Literally – I have!” For some reason they never believe me…

“Would you like a private screening?”

“No, here is fine.”

“Do you have any sensitive areas?”

“No.” All this while I’m staring at her with a look of impatience and still have my arms strung out like I’m Jesus preparing for his cross.

“I’m going to use the back of my hands for sensitive areas such as your breast and buttocks.”

“Ok.” Finally, she walks to her table, grabs a pair of blue latex gloves, and slowly puts them on. And when I say slowly, I mean S-L-O-W-L-Y. It’s always slow. Not like at a doctor’s office where they can whip those suckers on and off in a matter of seconds. It’s a whole ordeal. Grab them, try to put them on, realize it’s backwards, start all over. And it’s not just some TSA officers, it’s all of them. It’s likely the gloves that are the problem, but needless to say, I am thankful they use them.

Finally, the pat down begins. They start at the top of my head, gently but firmly touch my head, and try not to mess up my hair (thankfully, although I’m getting ready to board an airplane, so not sure what it matters).

They move down my arms, to my back, usually ask me to lean side to side while inserting their hand under my buttocks (which is weird to me, since I’m always sitting and my butt rarely comes into contact with another human). They are careful to make sure they firmly pat down every inch of my leg, from the crouch all the way to the bottom of my feet. They take the back of their hands and quickly go around, not over, my breasts. They always go quickly on this part of the body, as though they’re uncomfortable. I find it odd, because the next step is to lift my shirt and put their hands in my waistline and move all around my waist. This part is always painfully slow and uncomfortable. Mostly because they don’t want me to lift my shirt too high, but they want to get in my pants…I don’t know, it’s just confusing and strange having an officer stick their latex gloved hands in my pants.

As a side note, I’ve learned to dress in very tight fitting clothing to clear security – usually leggings, no socks, and a tight fitting shirt (sometimes without a bra to really slim down the chances of having to spend extra time there).

DSCN0038The final process is for the TSA officer to take a swab and run it over her gloves, my hands, and/or the chair. Sometimes they do all three, sometimes they pick just the chair. There’s no rhyme or reason to this I assume. The 2” by 2” cloth swab is then inserted into a machine while we wait for roughly 10 seconds for it to light up green indicating that I’m clear to go. I then find my way to my things, attempt to repack them, and put myself back together before heading to my gate.

I make my way to the gate, always struggling with the carpet airports choose. It’s thick, cheap, and difficult to wheel across, especially with luggage in my hand. I always carry my luggage on. I’ve never found a reason to need more than one bag. A true traveller will know exactly what I’m talking about (I’ll get into this in another blog). And besides, my impatience does not mesh well with me having to wait for a bag at my arrival destination (or take the chance that it may be lost).

Once I get to my gate, I proceed to the counter to get a “pink” tag for my wheelchair (so that it can be gate checked). This experience ranges all over the board – some just hand me a tag and let me do with it what I want while others want to fill it out and put in on the chair themselves (which can turn into a bit of a debate as they often want to attach it to the rim of my wheel, which causes it to get run over, but more importantly prevents me from effectively moving from place to place). And then there are the gate agents that want to go through a process of filling out an overly long form about the condition of my chair, the brand, how much it’s worth, etc., etc. I’ve been told by those wanting to do this that it’s a new law the FAA has put into place. Odd, I think, since not all airlines are doing this?!

Once this process is done and I’m properly tagged, they ask me if I will need any assistance to board the plane. I tell them no and they ask again, as though I didn’t hear them. I repeat no again and we separate ways. Upon boarding, they call for any “pre-boarders or those that may need extra time getting to their seat.” I don’t consider myself one of those people, as I think I am usually settled in my seat in half the time most passengers are, but I do take advantage of being able to board first.

The reason they ask if I will need help boarding is so that they can arrange for an “aisle chair” to help me get from the entrance of the plane to my seat. And yes, for some people, this would be necessary. I am fortunate enough that I have the mobility to just crawl to my seat.

I know it doesn’t make sense to “want” to crawl on a disgusting plane, not knowing what I might be crawling through. But the process is less humiliating, sooo much quicker, and just simpler for all parties involved. You see, the aisle chair requires two workers to come, strap me in with several seatbelts – one for each arm, one going over both legs, one going around my chest, and one going over my lap. I’ve never been in a straight jacket (although some would suggest I might need one at times – just kidding), but this must be what it feels like. I literally sit on a chair one foot wide, completely tied up with no ability to even scratch my nose, while I let two strange men pick up this chair, carry it onto a plane, and push forcefully, making me feel like the largest person in god’s existence, down the aisle to my seat. Oh, and of course the FAA has mandated that all seatbelts on the chair be used and that the officers do it, not me. It’s a 20 minute ordeal, so crawling is just quicker. The flight attendant grabs my bag, carries it to my seat while I slither along behind, and we’re done. Just like that, a 3-4 minute process. Thankfully, the airlines have gotten better in the past few years about letting me do this. It used to be that crawling was simply not an option. I guess now I just start doing it before they have a chance to stop me.

DSCN0050My flight experience from here on out is no different than anyone else. The only difference is that I can’t get up to use the bathroom. Now this isn’t usually a big deal, and I see no reason why someone can’t hold their bladder for a five or six hour flight. But those 10 hour or more flights are where it becomes tricky.   For one, it’s just simply unhealthy to hold your urine for that long. Flying dehydrates you in the first place, so it’s crucial to be drinking a lot of liquids. Secondly, these long flights offer free booze. Free and unlimited booze. What does alcohol do? Yes, I now have to pee. All. The. Time. And I like to drink. I mean, after all, who doesn’t. It helps me sleep, provides some entertainment, and all the other reasons people drink. And it’s free! So here I am, on a 14 hour flight, three drinks and one hour in, with an incredible urge to pee.

I think through my options – stop drinking, everything, and hold it for the next 13 hours. Or crawl to the bathroom. Crawling it is. I get to the door, struggle to open it, and peer in. It’s small, of course, which is the least of my concerns. I’m more concerned about the various dribbles of “something” on the floor. Is it water from the sink? Or are we dealing with a situation of I-tried-to-aim-for-the-hole-but-missed?

I attempt to get to the toilet without touching anything wet. I must look like I’m playing Twister in a closet. I’ve also learned in my travels that it’s best to hydrate – well – before boarding a flight, empty my bladder immediately before boarding, drink slowly and very little during the flight, and about an hour or two before landing, start rehydrating so that I can race to get to the bathroom when I get off. This has worked well recently; however, I’ve had to give up my free drinks which saddens me a little…

So aside from my inability to use a restroom once on board, the rest of my flights have been typical. The newfound idea of offering Internet while in flight is amazing. I cannot wait for the day when it’s standard on all international flights (and free too)!

DSCN0041Once the flight lands, I’m as antsy as the next guy to get off the plane. And remember that I haven’t used the bathroom in HOURS at this point. However, the wonderful FAA has made another frustrating rule that anyone using a wheelchair must wait until the end to deplane. Again, I’ve tried to fight the system on this more than once in the past and have found it to be another lost cause. I have learned to use the time waiting to catch up on text messages, emails, current weather, etc. I deplane the same way I got on – following a flight attendant with my luggage, wobbling back and forth on my hands and knees.

But at the end of this process, I have arrived. I am here! At my destination, ready for my next adventure and so excited about the growing experience and memories I will make.

As a side note, I want to comment that while I get overly frustrated with the TSA, I do appreciate the work they do. It’s unfortunate that flying has turned into what it is today, but thankfully we do have the resources to help make it an option. I cannot imagine my life without it.

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