“Should the TSA pat down kids in a wheelchair?”, This Is The Wrong Question

Before I dive into this post, discussing another post by consumer advocate and travel expert Chris Elliott this week, I should note that I both like and respect Chris.  This is not a dig on Chris or his opinions. We both cover the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regularly, we both have strong opinions on the agency and if you travel at all you should be reading his blog elliott.org and following Chris on Twitter at @elliottdotorg


Now that the disclaimer is out of the way here … this morning elliott.org posted a story entitled If you love the TSA, read this story. The post shows a video of a TSA Transportation Security Officer (TSO) patting down a young girl in a wheelchair, and the girl becoming quite upset during the process.   At the end of Chris’ post he poses the following question  “Should the TSA pat down kids in a wheelchair?


My answer to Chris’ question is this … You’re asking the wrong question.


If the question were as simple as  “Should the TSA pat down kids in a wheelchair?” the answer would be yes. The TSA and airport security screeners around the world should pat down kids in wheel chairs.


When looking at aviation security you cannot base opinions on emotional factors. The video in Chris’ post today is hard; especially as a parent it is hard. The emotional reaction to this video, and nearly every other video of a child, or special needs, passenger crying as they are searched by a TSA TSO is that the screener should back off … but when you approach the screening of all passengers based in real risk and known threats, removing your emotional response, the answers change.


Back in July 2011 I wrote about the TSA adjusting its pat downs of children, and questioned by children should be viewed as a lesser threat than an adult.   Why should children, adults and the elderly all be screened equally? Because terrorists have been known to use children, and those who are not fully in control of themselves, as explosive delivery systems many times for a very long time.  In the month leading up the TSA adjusting its policy for patting children down a 9 year old girl in Pakistan was kidnapped, sedated and placed into a suicide vest. This girl was luckily intercepted and the bomb-laden vest disarmed. A few days later in Kabul Afghanistan an 8-year-old girl was not so lucky. In Kabul, the 8-year-old girl was used as a human bomb by the Taliban killing dozens of people in a crowded area.


Weapons are hidden in canes, crutches, walkers and wheelchairs all the time. If someone is seeking to do harm to passengers, create panic or blow up a plane one of the easiest places to hide weapons and explosives would be with a handicapped child. Screening a child in a wheel chair is not an easy task, there can be many distractions and if the TSA were to blatantly state they were no longer screening kids in wheel chairs, the new immediate threat factor associated with handicapped children would increase significantly.


If there was not a long established history of children being used to smuggle weapons, act as human bombs and utilized as drug mules, maybe the circumstances would e different but they aren’t.


So what is the question Chris should be asking?  The question should be “Is there a better way to screen children, the elderly and special needs passengers in wheelchairs?”


The TSA can in fact create a better way to screen children, the elderly and special needs passengers in wheelchairs. The agency can train certain TSOs specifically in working with special needs passengers; these TSOs can be deployed at every checkpoint during their operating hours. Having dedicated TSOs that have a gentler touch, are trained to work around the distractions of the person being screened and appropriately communicating with their parents, companions or aids can reduce anxiety, while effectively and appropriately screening those in wheelchairs, those with autism, those with leg braces and others that are not a ‘common screening.’


This is not about the TSA’s image problem; this is about creating a better solution for screening while not deviating from the required standard operating procedures.


Suggesting the TSA not screen specific passengers due to whatever reason is like howling at the wind, it is pointless. Coming up with effective solutions to work around issues that come up on a daily basis is a way to advance security, while reducing a viable threat and enhance a traveler’s airport experience.


What’s your opinion?


Happy Flying!




  1. Fish,

    I’m in the group that believes that the general purpose of the TSA and our whole approach to airport security is more about making people feel safe than it is about actually being effective. Israel is the gold standard when it comes to airport security, and the don’t employ the vast majority of the TSA’s methods.

    I’m curious about your statement that “Weapons are hidden in canes, crutches, walkers and wheelchairs all the time.” Can you share your source of data for this? I certainly cannot refute it with any specificity, but that seems like a stretch.

    I agree with you that there should be a better way of screening those with special needs if we are indeed going to continue on with this theatre of safety.


  2. Bryan

    It is hard to not support the TSA’s Mission Statement
    “The Transportation Security Administration protects the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.”

    The approach however is flawed and many within the agency acknowledge it.

    Happy Flying!


  3. You are spot on in your analysis and Chris Elliott is dangerously wrong.

    I sometimes think that the TSA is its own worst enemy. Every thinking person knows there’s a threat and that anybody could be a bomber. We also all know that total safety is impossible. The TSA pretends they can deliver total safety and its heavy handed theatrical approach is part of that theater. But, in reality, the bombers come from some subsets: the fanatical and the impressionable. Concentrate the expertise there and you will achieve better results than searching for needles in a haystack.

    But then you get ignorant self-professed “experts” emoting about patting down the impressionable.

  4. Right on, Fish! Wholeheartedly agree.

    My infirm 93 year-old mom doesn’t mind in the least getting patted down. What she does mind are clumsy, insensitive, and poorly trained TSA officers doing the pat down. She is amazed (and irritated) when a female officer doesn’t seem to understand the construction of a bra.

    We all know TSA bl*ws, that it couldn’t secure a paper bag, let alone an air transportation system, and provides mediocre theater to boot. And has emotionally-based reactions to bad publicity.

  5. Thinking persons know that just because something is “possible,” i.e. not impossible, does not make it likely. Is it possible I will win this week’s lottery? It isn’t impossible, but the odds are 1 in 175 million. I’d say that is highly unlikely.

    Just cuz it could happen doesn’t mean it will. Ever.

    Fish listed two non-US stories of terrorists using kids as part of a weapon. Look at where those happened: Pakistan and Afghanistan. And when those happened: during those countries’ civil wars and high terrorism situations. How often did terrorists in those countries use children as part of weapon in the past ten, twenty, thirty, forty years, etc?

    What’s happened in the US? Are there *any* accounts of passengers using children, the elderly, or disabled to carry weapons, incendiaries, or explosives (the only things TSA is directed to be searching for) onto an airplane for the purposes of exploding such items and disrupting air travel?

    The TSA has searched over 1.2 BILLION shoes and has never found a weapon, explosive, or incendiary intended as a threat to air travel. Heck, they’ve barely found more than a handful of items at all, and most of those would have been found with walk-through metal detectors. Again, none were a viable (likely) threat.

    TSA is security theater and they are not keeping us safe, all for $8 Billion per year. Hardened cockpit doors and staff/passengers not willing to meekly wait to die are the real safety measures in today’s air travel.

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