Adventures in Flight

I think we all know by now that I am not fond of the screening the US government insists makes us safer when we fly. I make no secret of the fact that I think it’s a farce, but I cooperate and even let them steal some of my crafting equipment because, quite frankly, I have to pick my battles. I can replace scissors, needles, etc. I cannot, however, replace my health.

Last week I went to San Francisco with Michael. As I always do, I exercised my right to opt out of the full body scanner. Most airports I travel to seem to have done away with the Backscatter machines because the controversy was just too high, with even the pilots’ unions urging pilots not to subject themselves to the technology. They all still use the full body scanner that uses radio waves, so far as I can tell. I’ve been talking to Dr B – he’s no longer my doctor, but we regularly chat, discussing research we’ve both done on health in general, and what may be specific to my condition. He recently started reading about the effects of electrical radiation (ER), and we both thought it might be worth it to measure the ER in my house and filter anything that is producing a high level. It’s an experiment, but since nothing else makes a huge difference, I’m willing to give it a go.

I object to the use of the full body scanner because that machine would basically undo anything that I am trying to do at home. And what if I am actually sensitive to ER? I have an electrical problem in my nervous system that affects my heart (POTS). I really don’t want to exacerbate that particular problem, so why take the chance? Thus I opted out of the scan. The next passenger in the security line addressed me to compliment my wisdom in avoiding the scanner. She felt that she should be doing so as well, given that she travels every week (why she stayed in the line for the scanner at this point eludes me – she had me to set a precedent, but whatever). I used the opportunity to inform the woman that I did it for health concerns because I have enough chronic health conditions already.

The TSA agent to whom I directed my request to opt out then interjected his unwelcome and derisive opinion, “It’s not x-rays, it’s radio waves. Some people don’t do their research.” He then started trying to bully me out of my decision by insisting that it was going to take a long time for someone to arrive to do the pat-down. I account for that, and I politely told him so. He got crankier while I was waiting, complaining about how none of the other agents were around doing their jobs (the gov’t apparently just cut funding to the TSA, which I consider a small victory on my part, so it was ok with me that it took a longer time).

I immediately started to post my story to Facebook while I waited for the pat-down, in part because I wanted to write down and remember the name of this officer. I won’t reprint his name here because I know the people who will read this on Facebook, but just anyone can read it here, and I don’t think it’s fair to call him out so publicly. He was rude and uneducated. Ignorance is punishment enough in my book.

After I landed in SFO and had a night to sleep on it, I went to the TSA’s website to see if they had anything posted that would validate my position. I felt like this was an issue of someone discriminating against me because I don’t look sick. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my concern was actually directly addressed in the TSA literature.

1. Our current policies and procedures focus on ensuring that all passengers, regardless of their personal situations and needs, are treated equally and with the dignity, respect, and courtesy they deserve. Although every person and item must be screened before entering each secure boarding area, it is the manner in which the screening is conducted that is most important. I’m pretty sure this a direct violation of that policy. What about insulting me affords me dignity, respect, or courtesy?

2. You may request a pat-down inspection in lieu of going through the metal detector or being handwanded. You do not need to disclose why you would like this option. It isn’t even my responsibility to inform the agent that I have a disability. The TSA admits that my decision is none of their business.

While I was reading this information, I realized this is an issue of patient advocacy. No one, especially the government, has the right to tell me that my health care decisions are wrong. I get insulted a bit (largely by medical doctors) because the treatments I find most effective are not pharmaceutical, and by some people’s logic must therefore be voodoo or placebo. I know I shouldn’t be taking this kind of treatment from my doctors, and I felt fury when I realized that this guy with no health care training whatsoever decided he could tell me what is or is not dangerous to my health.

I remembered hearing somewhere that there is an app that you can download to your phone to make complaints about TSA abuses on the spot. After searching for a moment, I found FlyRights. This app is for reporting ANY kind of discrimination, from disability to religious and anything in between. I sent in my complaint with this app.

As the next few days passed, I started getting letters from the TSA. The first two were simply acknowledging receipt of my complaint and advising me of the process they use to determine if my complaint is in their purview and how they will handle it.

The third email was a form letter from the TSA contact center apologizing for the treatment I received and offering advice about how to more efficiently and immediately submit a complaint in the future. It is very telling to me that they a) need a form letter to apologize, and b) have a more efficient way of receiving complaints that they felt I would need to know about. It implies to me that this happens all the time and I should expect it again. That said, I’m pleasantly surprised they did in fact apologize, citing the same passages in their policy that I identified as justification for my position. I would post the content of the letter here, but I read a clause at the bottom that I don’t want to be on the wrong side of. The clause says:

“NOTICE: The information contained in this message and any attachments is privileged and confidential and therefore protected from disclosure. If the reader of this message is not the intended recipient, or an employee or agent who is responsible for delivering this message to the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any dissemination, distribution or copying of this communication is strictly prohibited. Senture does not accept liability for changes to this message after it was sent. The views expressed in this e-mail do not necessarily reflect the views of the company. If you have received this communication in error, please notify the sender immediately by replying via e-mail to this message and deleting this information from your computer.”

I’m relatively certain they would want me to post something they did right, but I don’t want to take the risk that because I’ve been identified as a dissenter that they might make an example of me.

The fourth letter was from the customer service manager at DIA, and his was personal and sincere. Since there was no warning on his letter, I will post the contents with the name of the offending officer redacted:

I regret this incident and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. It has been, and remains your option to not use the Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) scanners, regardless of which technology is in use, and there is no reason necessary. Officer ——‘s comments were uncalled for and I will make sure his manager understands that they were also unwanted, rude, and incorrect in this case. Please understand that we take a report like this seriously and this individual will be dealt with appropriately.

Please feel free to contact me by email or phone at any time.

His email included his contact information. I plan to craft a well-written reply, telling this man about my work in patient advocacy and thanking him for taking me seriously. I don’t want the agent’s job (he could have something going on in his personal life for all I know, and I don’t want to treat him as badly and ignorantly as he treated me), but I do want to suggest that TSA officers be instructed that they aren’t qualified to make health care decisions for passengers.

After all of this drama, two of my friends suggested that I need to do more with this. One told me I needed to blog about it, and the other told me that I really needed to make a website with my patient advocacy information. They were both right. My biggest focus in patient advocacy at the moment is patient rights, and this definitely falls under that scope. There are a lot more rights that patients have when traveling that I didn’t know (like you can bring any size bottle of medication, prescription or not, and you don’t have to have it x-rayed, but you do have to submit it to a visual inspection), and I think it would be very good to put it out there in an easy to access form.

Honestly, I know nothing about designing a web site. I have plenty of content, but I’m not sure how to get it up and arranged. I guess this is something I need to learn. Anyone out there have any suggestions about where I start?


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