Reduce Airport Security Hassles for Seniors

Can't help beeping? Don't let a hip replacement ruin your trip.

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Air travel security can impact some travelers much more than others -- especially certain seniors. But there are things you can do to help a senior traveler be prepared, and things you can do to help the security process. Problems can arise if the traveler can't handle a long airport walk, or the traveler's stuff isn't organized with security in mind, or if the traveler's body contains some metal that will beep.

Here are several tips I learned the hard way, the first time I helped my dad, Norman Hawkins, make his way through security at San Diego's Lindbergh Field.

1. Get A Pass -- Airport security normally doesn't allow anyone but departing passengers with a flight boarding pass to go to the gate. But, if a passenger needs extra help, you can often go along. When I helped my dad check in at the Southwest Airlines departure counter, I asked if I could go with him to the gate. I showed my ID, and the agent launched into what seemed like endless typing, but eventually I got a gate pass.
TIP: Request a gate pass right away; it might save some typing.

2. Hitch A Ride -- My dad can stand and walk, but even with a cane it quickly gets painful. Getting from the airline's check-in desk to the security checkpoint is often quite a trek. It is easier on him and everyone around him if he can do it in a wheelchair. (Fortunately, an alert Southwest employee spotted us checking in, saw the cane, and rushed over with a wheelchair I could use.)
TIP: Request a wheelchair or cart ride in advance, and again when you get to the check-in counter.

3. Keep Asking -- Getting a ride isn't assured. Some airlines let you request a wheelchair when you purchase the tickets, and this should alert the agent when you check in. But one time, even though I had notified Southwest Airlines in advance that a wheelchair was required, none was available. So we made the long walk -- slowly.
TIP: Make it the agent's problem to get what you need.

4. Drive Carefully -- Security lines can be long, snaking around a rope-delineated path. At several points, the path wasn't as wide as the wheelchair, and I got stuck, to the annoyance of everyone behind me. We made it to the security point, where the wheelchair had to be abandoned so my dad could walk through the metal detector gate. On the other side, well, no more wheelchair. And, no cane, since it had to go through the x-ray machine.
TIP: If you must give up a mobility aid at the metal detector, immediately request that it be made available on the other side.

5. Ditch The Metal -- A bigger problem was my dad's poor preparation for the metal detector. He was wearing a huge metal belt buckle that triggered frantic beeping. So off came his belt, raising the question, will his pants stay up? We lightened the pants by removing several pounds of beep-triggering coins, keys, and random stuff. Even his shirt pocket beeped from several pens.
TIP: Before entering the security line, remove all metal and stash it in luggage or a small carry-on bag that can go through the x-ray -- anywhere but on the person.

6. Talk To TSA -- Finally we'd ferreted out all the loose metal, but my dad still beeped. Would his artificial hip joint do this, I wondered? Yes, said the stern TSA agent, who told my dad to go stand in a special roped-off area. The agent let me collect from the x-ray machine all my dad's stuff, including the belt and a bowl of coins, plus his small bag of medicines and his cane. But the agent wouldn't let me stand near my dad, nor go find the wheelchair, nor give him his cane. I was warned that any contact would get me sent to a special security check.
TIP: If a walking cane gets separated from the person who needs it, ask a TSA agent to deliver it.

7. Hidden Metal Hassles -- When the metal detector beeps on metal that's not obvious, TSA must check further. The agent told me there's no exception, no doctor's letter or explanation that will avoid this.
TIP: If you know you'll beep no matter how much you empty your pockets, save time by telling the agents at the metal detector. Instead of doing further checking in front of everyone, they'll usually send you directly to secondary screening, which is where you're going to end up anyway.

8. Cooperate Courteously -- Eventually a TSA agent showed up to lead my dad to another examining area, and after some explanation, I was allowed to join them. Using a metal-detection wand and gloved hands, the agent checked my dad rather thoroughly, from his shoes to his wallet to his body. I was allowed to help a bit, removing and restoring his shoes, sorting out the various items, and witnessing how the agent poked around. Fortunately, the TSA agents I've seen at San Diego have been professional and non-threatening, but I've encountered some airport personnel with the demeanor of prison guards.
TIP: Be helpful, but not demanding or discourteous. Remember your goal is to breeze through the process, not lose an argument or miss a flight.

9. Up, Up And Away -- Once the agent cleared us, I helped my dad pull things together, and still on foot, we made our way to the gate with just a few minutes to spare.
TIP: If the traveler faces mobility and/or security challenges, get to the airport very early -- two hours before the flight has worked well for me.

Why fly?

My dad now knows which belt to leave home, and to put his coins in his piggybank, not his pockets. But his metal hip and walking problem aren't going away. So flying will continue to be an unpleasant experience. In fact, for shorter trips, many people who used to fly now prefer to drive -- including me. Theoretically, flying from San Diego to Las Vegas, Phoenix, or San Francisco takes just 60 to 90 minutes, but reality is much different computed door-to-door. To Vegas or Phoenix, driving is usually faster than flying, and more relaxing. To SF it might take an hour or two longer to drive, but I have my car, my stuff, and my own schedule.

But there's another intriguing option, Plan C for "coach." I've talked to several families who say senior and/or young family members can travel comfortably in a motorhome. A typical RV provides several areas to sit or recline, plus a bathroom, kitchen, space to stretch legs, very flexible scheduling, and no probing security. RVing is a growing Boomer activity, so look for mobile lifestyle articles in Boomer Advisor; click to read the first one.