I am far from being a stranger to international travel. These days, I’m visiting at least one country every month, sometimes as many as three. I am part of the DHS Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check program, which dramatically reduces my time dealing with security. My home airport is Orlando International Airport (MCO), and I often feel like my electric scooter could drive itself through the terminals due to our frequent visits. Many of the wheelchair assistance personnel know me by sight since I always need an aisle chair to get between my scooter at the aircraft door and my plane seat, and even some of the airport ambassadors know me because I pass through Customs and Immigration so frequently. Unfortunately, none of this prevented the indignity, frustration, and humiliation I had to deal with the night of May 16, 2017.
At 8:20 PM Eastern Time, I arrived at MCO on Norwegian flight 7057 from Gatwick Airport in London – a connection from my origin in Oslo, Norway that morning. It’s important that I mention here I had already been through security screening twice; once at the Oslo airport, and a second time during my transfer at Gatwick since the USA was my next and final stop. After I got off the plane, I went on my electric scooter to Immigration, quickly scanned my passport at the Global Entry kiosk, and cleared Immigration in five minutes. I got my carry-on sized suitcase off the belt within three minutes and cleared Customs immediately.
What happened next is predicated on a bad experience I had at MCO in this same area on March 31 as I returned from Munich, Germany, so I feel the need to provide this context. As soon as you exit the Customs area, you have one of three choices: take your baggage with you up the escalator to the terminal train, take the elevator (with an escort) with your bag to the train, or place your bag on a conveyor belt to be sent to the regular baggage claim area so you don’t have to drag it with you up the escalator or elevator. A young female employee with Superior Aircraft Services (SAS), the skycap service company contracted by MCO to handle baggage, stopped me when I told her I needed to use the elevator – exactly as I had done upon returning from Barbados, Australia, and Iceland in recent months. She firmly told me I had no choice but to place my suitcase on the conveyor belt because it wasn’t safe to take it with me due to airport construction.
I was baffled. I was allowed to ride my scooter to the elevator, use the elevator, and ride to baggage claim, but my suitcase couldn’t roll with me along the same path. I was the only one required to do this, as I was in a scooter and couldn’t walk. This information ended up being completely false, as there was zero construction along my route from Customs to baggage claim, where I got my suitcase a full hour later.
Back to May 16. Due to this recent experience with SAS outside of the Customs area, I avoided the baggage belt area altogether and directly asked a very nice airport ambassador to escort me, on my scooter with my carry-on sized suitcase and backpack, to the elevator. Unfortunately, that elevator wasn’t working, so his supervisor advised him to take me to an alternate elevator that would take me through a TSA checkpoint. She asked me if I had any liquids on me, which I thought was strange and irrelevant since I had just gotten OFF the plane and was leaving the airport.
We arrived at the empty TSA checkpoint, where I thought I was just going to roll through and leave. One of the five TSA screeners informed me I would have to go through a full security screening, and I would lose all my liquids in my suitcase (which had been checked baggage) unless the ambassador could personally escort me to the main terminal area. Again, I was baffled. I explained to them twice that I had just left the Customs area after deplaning from Norwegian flight 7057. I had proof via the stamp on my passport, and the ambassador had escorted me all the way from the secure Customs area. They did not care. First they made me put all my belongings through the x-ray machine for the third time that day. Then, without any regard for my Global Entry or Pre-Check status, I was subjected to a third humiliating full-body pat down before I was allowed to leave for the main terminal.
Here’s another part of this entire travesty that I really don’t understand. For all their fuss about running me through security screening, they never removed my liquids from my bags and never asked to see my passport or any other form of identification. In other words, I was the ONLY person subjected to this joke of a screening purely because I had to use an alternate elevator due to being disabled, and neither the airport nor TSA apparently had any training or contingency plans in place to accommodate such a situation – let alone the authority to use common sense and make decisions on the spot for how to work with travelers with disabilities.
I have filed formal complaints with the Greater Orlando Airport Authority (GOAA) and TSA, the latter of which recently informed me, “After careful review, we have determined that your inquiry falls outside TSA’s jurisdiction. We encourage you to contact the local airport authority, which is responsible for the operation and oversight of the airport.” I have also sent an email to Orlando’s Channel 6 Getting Results investigative team to see if they can look into how MCO is treating travelers with disabilities. I have many more international trips planned for 2017 and 2018, and I really hope MCO can educate its employees about how to more effectively assist travelers with disabilities and treat them with respect and dignity.