I love to travel. And although I find aeroplanes claustrophobic on account of my control-freak tendencies and there being 300 people on board, I find air travel exciting, terrifying and amazing in equal measure. What I find less enjoyable is the veritable lottery of what kind of
frisk, detention, terror-threat suspect, 'experience' I will have at the passenger security check thanks to the diabetes paraphernalia I cart around in hand luggage. Bizarrely enough when travelling with a pump six years ago, I rarely encountered problems. I made it to Thailand and back to a friend's wedding on my first ever with-pump journey, without incident. A usual 'show it, explain it, politely decline to have it x-rayed' mantra was enough to make it on board without an MI5 security team interview. In recent years however, this has changed.
At Heathrow in July this year, a well-meaning-but-having-none-of-it security guard insisted repeatedly that, "Even pacemakers are fine in the full body scanner". His persistent claims got louder and louder and more animated until it felt like there were exclamation points at the end of every sentence. It gets hard to be polite when someone wants to disappear with your pump after refusing to accept that it couldn't be scanned. After losing sight of my pump he returned with it and confirmed, once again, that pacemakers can go through it. I will of course bear this in mind - if I ever get a pacemaker.
My journey home from Frankfurt involved three women taking me into a 'detailed check' (kit off, sans dignity) while they appeared
confused, befuddled, horrified by my CGM sensor. This was followed up by someone shouting 'random bag-check' as they carefully selected my bag from the conveyor belt, at 'random'.
The Dubai chapter of the book was inexplicable. Voices were raised, arms were waived and scowls were given. None of the above perpetrated by myself.
Somehow I made it to America, post 9/11, with 42 hypodermic needles and enough insulin on board to hygienically murder and entire crew while my friend got stopped for a corkscrew, and yet an insulin pump and CGM sensor bemuses most security staff. And I know that one of these days as it is whisked away from my view (against my requests) it will be put through an x-ray machine.
I understand it, of course. Only 7% of people with T1 diabetes use an insulin pump, and there are currently at least five separate types of pump on the market right now. There are hundreds of other pieces of diabetes equipment alone and there are God knows how many for every other condition which get seen daily as the thousands of people come and go from the country - millions worldwide. With terror technology modernising as fast as - if not faster - than medical technology, I can understand why a safety first approach is necessary. And I'm glad they raise concerns, frankly, because I can feel safe in the knowledge that when someone comes through with a device which on closer inspection is suspicious, I know they won't be on my flight.
But the question has to be asked, if medical technology of any kind does come through airport security on a daily basis, why is there not a single policy which is part of regular, standardised training? And why is it not worldwide, in the same way that airport security is standardised worldwide? Yes, there are hundreds of medical devices out there, but when pump companies and hospitals produce letters about the handling of these items, why are their hosts under fire of multiple questions, in different ways, dependent on the day of the week it is, and who is on shift that day?
The issues are that the damage - or possible damage - done by the full body scanners to an insulin pump - which is effectively a small computer - is largely unknown. I have watched a fellow blogger go into one wearing their pump without incident. But the warnings are clear, and are agreed upon by all the major insulin pump companies (Omnipod is not affected). Going through any surveillance procedure which uses this technology with a pump carries a risk. But as it becomes more commonplace to use full body scanners as the go-to security measure in airports, this places people with diabetes using technologies which are growing in popularity in a difficult position: refuse and raise questions of your suitability to travel, or go through and risk your pump being exposed to potentially damaging x-rays. Just how global can your pump company deliver a replacement pump?
The good news is that change is afoot, with your help. This topic was recently raised at the Animas Hero meeting a group I have the honour of being part of, as a number of people raised concerns over the mandatory introduction of full-body scanners at UK airports from December 2016. The following conversations uncovered that Rachel Humphrey at the Universal Freight Organisation was working to raise the profile of this issue at an international level. Rachel is in contact with the Head of Training at Airports Council International (ACI), who are in turn going to raise this issue in May 2017 at the ICAO (The UN agency for Aviation). ACI have said:
“The information has been forwarded to ICAO (The UN Agency for Aviation) for their consideration and advice on the best way to raise the issue globally to screening authorities."
ACI will present the issue to the ICAO Aviation Security Panel in May, requesting that it is included in global guidance material. Additionally, ACI will continue to raise awareness with its members through its committees and circulars to airports."
Although many people travel daily without incident, many are also subjected to arguments, questioning and the process of having pumps removed and taken out of sight, due to the varying degrees of training as to how to approach the issue of unfamiliar (should be familiar) medical technology encountered at airports. I have a 100% record for botched security procedures inn 2016, and as someone who can hold my own but gets deep uncomfortable at the through of being one of 'those' passengers, it's clear this isn't just a one-off situation. And for those using technology which is becoming more common place year-on-year, this has to change.
If this issue is important to you or someone you love or care for, please visit the links below and look in particular at the petition linked in. And if in doubt, contact your pump/CGM maker for a copy of their letter explaining how their device should be handled.
The official position of Diabetes UK on airport travel with diabetes can be found here.
The petition for a standardised approach can be found here.
The current protocol for security when travelling from the UK can be found here.