Wheelchairs and security

I have seen people in wheelchairs in the airport all the time but how do they get through security? Are they searched by hand or a metel detector wand? Do they have to get out of their wheelchair and use the airports wheelchair? Can they bring their wheelchair into the airport? I have been wondering about issues like these because of a college class assignment to find out about handicapped persons and what daily challenges they face.

Not about security, but one of the biggest problems I had when I was in a wheelchair (in high school) was that people would not get out of the way. I’m serious. They were facing me and I had to ask them repeatedly to move their stuff. After all, when you’re walking you can just pick your way through assorted junk if you have to, but a wheelchair requires a fairly large minimum contiguous space to move. IIRC, when I was in an airport, and using their wheelchair, I had to get out of the wheelchair, go through the detector, and then get back on.

If it’s an electric-powered chair, they often insist on partially disassembling it, and then cannot get it back together on their own. Therefore, disabled folks have to allow extra time and learn the basics of supervising wheelchair repair. A friend of mine has had this experience multiple times.

Folks in manual chairs are pushed through by security personnel and searched by hand.

Airports do often request that people use the airport chairs, but it depends on the airport and the disabled person. It’s more likely to happen if someone is on a layover than at the initial airport. One’s own chair is usually “gate-checked,” that is, once the person in the chair is on the plane, the wheelchair is taken directly from the gate to the luggage compartment.

My dad is wheelchair-bound, and I’ve flown several times with him. Security is rarely much of an issue (keep in mind, though, that compared to what I’ve read about the States, airports in New Zealand seems to be fairly lax about security – except for biosecurity: they’re very strict about that here). Dad stays in his own wheelchair throughout the whole process. He puts his hand luggage through the x-ray machine and goes through the metal detector as usual. Of course, the metal detector goes off, but nobody’s particularly surprised – they just scan him with a wand.

The real difficulties begin when comes to actually boarding the plane. His wheelchair is far too wide to fit in the aisles, so he has to transfer to a specially-built aisle wheelchair. Dad doesn’t like being forced to use an unfamiliar wheelchair at the best of times, and the aisle wheelchairs are invariably undersized, uncomfortable and clunky pieces of crap that can only be pushed from behind. Luckily, he only needs it to get between the gate and his seat, so he’s not in that wheelchair for long.

He usually boards about five or ten minutes before they make the first general boarding call. This gives the ground crew enough time to stow his wheelchair with the rest of the checked luggage. I understand that they put all sorts of “ultra-high priority” tags on it and stow it right next to the door so that, in theory, they can fetch the chair immediately upon arrival without having to go through whatever the hell they do that makes your luggage take so long to appear on the conveyor belt.

This rarely happens in practice, though. The destination airport’s ground crew always manages to screw up, and Dad often ends up waiting in some horrible old wheelchair for his own wheelchair to arrive with the rest of the luggage. They can usually find something better than the aisle wheelchair, but it is far too often another one that has to be pushed from behind.

I’ll just emphasise that people in wheelchairs often hate using wheelchairs apart from their own, and people who propel their own chairs especially hate being forced to rely on others to push them. OK, I know I’m generalising from a sample size of one, but there you go.

Wheelchairs represent one of the toughest obstacles for security. There is really no easy way to complete a thorough search without significantly impacted the person in the chair. Hubby got around this by buying chairs for the prison and transferring people into one of the chairs. However, this also has it’s own form of risks. Although they get the person to sign a waiver, if they are injured during the transfer or by a faulty chair, the liability would still be there.

However, he has also had to tangle with numerous other “hot button” issues, such as babies. They have caught multiple mothers using their children to convey narcotics and there is no way to switch out the baby. However, he is not going to order the strip search of a baby without cause, so they are a ready made conveyance tool. However, it is no different than the anal cavity or the vaginal opening.

My mother is in a wheelchair, and she’s had a lot of problems from security.

She’s basically wheelchair-bound as a result of multiple sclerosis and other health problems. She can walk short distances with either a cane or another person, both of which are verboten at security. So she gets wanded a lot, but not before explaining to the security checkpoint person that she can’t get out of the chair without assistance. She’s been verbally abused in a few airports by agents who think she’s faking or is just being difficult. (Believe me, she’s got the TSA website bookmarked.)

The process is that she is seated in a chair just past the checkpoint. She is wanded as her chair goes through the screening area. Once that’s been cleared, she’s transferred back to her own chair and taken to the gate.

I think any wheelchair manufacturer who wanted to make billions could design a more security-friendly chair.


I wonder what one of those would consist of? Just being made from some kind of non-metal material that is both strong enough for day-to-day use but won’t set off a metal detector?

Would graphite or carbon composite set off an airport metal detector? I know they make golf clubs and fighter jets out of the stuff, so it’s gotta be pretty durable, right?

I’ve had no problems whatsoever, and I use a manual wheelchair (I can’t walk at all). I’ve been on several trips within Canada, several others to the US, and one to Ireland in this condition. I could transfer to a chair while my wheelchair was being checked if someone insisted, but no one ever insists and I never volunteer.

It does help if you’re hard to embarrass and equally hard to offend. :smiley: When I check in I make sure the airline knows that I need my wheelchair tagged to ensure that it is brought to the door of the plane at my destination. When I go to security I don’t wheel through those walk-through medical detectors (one time I was confused what they were asking me to do and I did go through one; I was firmly told not to do that). I leave my carry-on stuff at the X-ray and get escorted around the detectors. One person frisks me thoroughly (hence my comment about being hard to embarrass or offend) and another watches. I’m often asked if I mind being frisked in public or whether I’d prefer it being done in private - I always agree to it being done in public; it doesn’t bother me and it lets me keep an eye on my carry-on stuff.

At the gate, usually I’m taken down to the plane first (sometimes they leave me to last). At the door of the plane I’m transferred to one of those goofy aisle wheelchairs that another respondent has mentioned (they remind me of a thing for hauling luggage) to get to my seat. I do have reasonable upper body strength, so I can normally transfer to the seat without too much problem. I’d say about 50% of the time I get “upgraded” to business class for free - it makes life easier for them to get my to my seat (sometimes if I’m very lucky they can put me near enough to the door that I can just use my own wheelchair without needing the aisle chair).

I have only once (in probably at least a couple of dozen flights - I’ve lost count) had them take my own wheelchair to baggage claim rather than bring it to the door of the aircraft. What can be a major pain in the ass is waiting for them to bring an aisle chair after I land. I’ve occasionally waited in the aircraft for an aisle chair for 15 or 20 minutes after the other passengers have left. Since I can not believe they cost very much (they really are pieces of junk) I can’t see why they don’t keep one at every gate.

One other point - even when I was able bodied I was always a little “paranoid” about making sure I allowed lots of time for checking in, changing flights, etc. I’m even more so now. Anything less than an hour for checking in or for changing flights makes me very nervous, and I prefer at least a couple of hours; I occasionally get concerned staff asking me if I’m lost when I’m just slowly wandering around the airport wasting time. It does mean that the extra time to get frisked, wait for an aisle chair, etc. normally doesn’t cause any problems.

Not that there aren’t already weapons that won’t set off a metal detector, but a nice, sturdy non-metal wheelchair material also means a nice, sturdy weapon material that also doesn’t set off the detector.

The latest episode of Little People, Big World (which deals with the Roloff family with dwarf parents) shows the hassle of going through airport security with a motorized chair. It plays on TLC (The Learning Channel). Essentially they hand searched both the chair and the passenger thoroughly.