Air travelers with mobility challenges say they are not getting their money’s worth out of TSA Precheck at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia.
At Reagan and a handful of other airports nationwide, Precheck security entrances lack wheelchair accessible gates, according to passengers and advocates for people with mobility challenges.
As the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority continues work on a massive renovation for a new, larger terminal at Reagan National, the current TSA checkpoints are operating in reduced space.
“People with disabilities are directed to the standard lane,” said John Morris, the founder and author of www.wheelchairtravel.org.
Morris, who uses a wheelchair because of injuries suffered in a 2012 car crash, said the shift to standard lanes can lead to slowdowns, unpacking and invasive pat downs.
“The downside now is that you have to remove the items that you know you’re supposed to be able to leave in your bag,” he said. “It’s extremely inconvenient.”
TSA Precheck allows passengers who undergo background checks and pay a membership fee to move through security more efficiently, without having to remove shoes, computers, liquid items and belts.
New TSA guidelines for passengers in wheelchairs went into effect in November, offering "on-person screening" instead of pat-downs to test for traces of explosives for those with Precheck who are moved to a standard lane. However, a TSA spokesperson told the I-Team items in their bags still must then be removed.
But a spokesperson for Paralyzed Veterans of America said they continue to get complaints from people with disabilities about pat-downs.
Heather Ansley, the organization’s government relations director, said members also have reported being rerouted at other airports nationwide.
“Everybody is just trying to get through, and they really don’t care that you’re saying, ‘I have the right to have this Precheck experience,” Ansley said.
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority said the airport is constructing two new, larger TSA checkpoints, which will be wheelchair accessible.
“Each will be about 50,000 square feet and located on the concourse level,” the spokesman said. “The buildings will be ADA compliant.”
The target date for completion of the construction is 2021.
The federal government is already tracking a separate problem faced by air travelers in wheelchairs. A newly released U.S. Department of Transportation report shows passengers filed more than 950 complaints about mishandled wheelchairs and scooters with airlines in May alone. The complaints comprise less than 2% of all wheelchairs or scooters flown on commercial flights that month.
Morris, who is a frequent flyer, said his wheelchair has been damaged at least 10 times by air carriers this year. Morris said the chairs are heavy and intricate, which can be a challenge for baggage handlers.
“I just don't think they're giving the level of care that's required for a wheelchair that retails for $35,000,” he said.
Paralyzed Veterans for America said reports of damaged wheelchairs are the most complaints they hear from their members.
“It's a training issue, to make sure airline staff have the time they need to deal with things,” Ansley said.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, “U.S. carriers must fully compensate passengers for loss or damage to wheelchairs or other assistive devices, without regard to rules limiting liability for lost or damaged baggage.”
Airlines for America, a trade group representing several major airlines said the industry is working with the disability community to produce guidelines for safe handling of wheelchairs:
“There is an ongoing effort by A4A and our member airlines, together with disability groups and wheelchair manufacturers, to address guidelines for the safe and efficient handling and storage of wheelchairs to reduce the incidence of damage during air travel. This includes the creation of a checklist of the dimensional, performance and instructional information associated with the assistive technologies (AT); procedures and training for the handling of AT; and labeling and design specifications to encourage manufacturers to build AT suitable for transport in commercial aircraft. This information can then be effectively communicated to passengers with mobility impairments.”Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.