'Airports are terrifying': How TSA Cares helps people who need extra support at security

·5 min read

When Jim Macklin last flew through Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in June, he booked a flight with Southwest Airlines. Needing help to navigate the airport, he highlighted one word on his reservation: blind.

It was Macklin's first time traveling since his diagnosis of Stargardt disease, a rare genetic condition that causes macular degeneration. He hasn't completely lost his vision but his eyesight has deteriorated to the point where he cannot navigate the labyrinth of an airport without assistance.

Unsure how he would find his gate, he flagged down someone in a uniform when he arrived curbside at Sky Harbor.

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"I talked to the first guy I saw and said, 'I need help,'" Macklin said.

The person helped him get where he needed to go, but Macklin is one of many travelers who might have felt less anxiety if they had known of a Transportation Security Administration program designed to make trips through airport security less stressful.

What is TSA Cares?

The TSA screening process can induce anxiety in even the most seasoned travelers. Remembering what's allowed, what's not. Taking off shoes. Taking out laptops. Separating 3-ounce liquids into a plastic bag. Getting hands swabbed. Standing in an X-ray machine. Navigating crowds of people in a noisy, packed environment.

A medical condition or sensory issue could make the process even more taxing.

Kelly Campbell of Foundation for Blind Children takes a TSA Cares tour on Sept. 14, 2021, in Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Kelly Campbell of Foundation for Blind Children takes a TSA Cares tour on Sept. 14, 2021, in Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Recognizing that, the Transportation Security Administration launched TSA Cares in 2012. People who might need extra support through security, whether due to a disability, medical condition or other circumstance, can call in advance to let the agency know.

A specially trained TSA agent called a passenger support specialist then meets the traveler at security to guide them through the screening process.

Who is eligible for TSA Cares?

The program is generally open to any passenger who believes they would benefit from extra support navigating security and is available nationwide. Some of the most common requests are from people with autism, those who use a wheelchair or scooter, travelers with cognitive disabilities and passengers with diabetes.

Jeff Cote, a TSA supervisor and passenger support specialist, said the role is personal to him. His daughter, who is 29, has Asperger's syndrome. He understands as a parent the difference a little extra patience and care during the screening process can make for travelers.

He said the passengers he's guided through security range in age from infants to elderly people.

TSA supervisor and passenger support specialist Jeffrey Cote (center) talks with Kelly Campbell (second from left, of Foundation for Blind Children) during a TSA Cares tour on Sept. 14, 2021, in Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
TSA supervisor and passenger support specialist Jeffrey Cote (center) talks with Kelly Campbell (second from left, of Foundation for Blind Children) during a TSA Cares tour on Sept. 14, 2021, in Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

"We have a lot of babies that come through that are on feeding machines," Cote said. "A lot of that can't be scanned through X-ray so we will screen that ourselves."

"Sometimes we get people who are going through treatments medically and have a lot of extra medical equipment, including IV bags and oversized liquids," said Tracy Blake, a TSA supervisor and passenger support specialist.

Blake said the goal is to make the traveler feel comfortable while still performing the security duties required to screen passengers. She said a passenger support specialist may take a different approach, such as moving to a separate lane where they can conduct a screening without creating anxiety.

"Just helping them through that process really ensures they have a better travel experience," Blake said.

Spreading the word about TSA Cares

In TSA Cares' first year, it had 3,000 requests for assistance nationwide. So far in 2021, it has received more than 18,000 requests. Those figures include people who called in advance and passengers that TSA identified at security as needing support.

Despite that growth, the program is little known to many of the people who could use it most. Word of it is often passed by word of mouth. Families tell other families how the program can help give their loved ones dignity while traveling.

TSA agent Tammie Malkow Dunham (center) guides Connie Cobb (right, of Foundation for Blind Children) during a TSA Cares tour on Sept. 14, 2021, in Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
TSA agent Tammie Malkow Dunham (center) guides Connie Cobb (right, of Foundation for Blind Children) during a TSA Cares tour on Sept. 14, 2021, in Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

TSA does outreach to let travelers know how they can assist. For instance, on Sept. 14, TSA held a tour at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport for a group from the Foundation for Blind Children, which serves children and adults with visual loss in metro Phoenix.

During the tour, Blake and Cote walked the two dozen visitors through security, giving them the opportunity to hear, feel and experience what it would be like to go through a checkpoint before they need to navigate it themselves.

Melody Girouard, who participated in the tour, has a genetic condition that has affected her eyesight since she was a child. She has traveled around the world and often does so with a companion.

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She described the few times she's traveled by herself as "scary and, to be honest, hard."

"Airports are terrifying because I can't read the signs. I can't see where I'm going," Girouard said. She also can't see visual cues such as a hand gesture waving her over.

The tour was the first time the 39-year-old had heard about TSA Cares.

"To know you can preplan and have that security (of assistance), that's incredible," she said.

Jim Macklin (center, Foundation for Blind Children) waits to go into the body scanner during a TSA Cares tour on Sept. 14, 2021, in Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Jim Macklin (center, Foundation for Blind Children) waits to go into the body scanner during a TSA Cares tour on Sept. 14, 2021, in Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Macklin, also part of the tour group, said learning about TSA Cares was a game changer.

A former registered nurse, he said he was devastated when his diagnosis forced him to retire.

He credits the Foundation for Blind Children with giving him his life back. He said he now has the confidence to search for a new job in the medical field utilizing his 30 years of experience as a nurse.

He is also about to embark on another trip. In a few weeks, he's planning to fly to Tennessee to visit friends. This time, he anticipates his arrival at Sky Harbor will be far less chaotic.

"I'll definitely be contacting TSA," he said.

You can connect with Arizona Republic consumer travel reporter Melissa Yeager through email at melissa.yeager@azcentral.com. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: TSA Cares explained: Helping travelers who need support at the airport