Navigating the Airport

          Traveling by airplane was once an exciting privilege! I remember travelers wearing “nice” clothes and behaving politely to one another, but that was years ago. Today’s airports are confusing, chaotic, and intimidating for travelers of any age, but especially for elders with hearing or vision impairments, or limited mobility.  Sadly, this situation leads some older people to stop traveling altogether. Recently, I learned about some ways to make the airport experience smoother for elders. Whether you are an anxious senior traveler or the adult child of one, know that there are steps that can help avoid unnecessary anxiety and missed flights.

           One of the most intimidating aspects of the modern American airport is the security line.  Since 9/11, the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has implemented lengthy, confusing and often frightening procedures that cause long waits while standing in line. Taking off shoes, checking all liquids, turning computers on and off, walking through imaging devices that look like futuristic time-travel machines, are all required steps that take place under time pressure from the TSA agents and the other people waiting in line. Here is how to cut through that process:  go to the TSA website and download a “Disability Notification Card for Air Travel”.  The wallet-sized card permits you to identify your special needs and convey them discreetly to the TSA agents. One elder I know wrote in, “Hearing Impaired, Can’t Stand for Long Time”. On arrival at the security line, she handed the card to the free-roaming TSA agent who read it and directed the elder to a special, faster line. My friend was escorted through security, given priority in screening so she didn’t have to wait, and assisted with collecting her belongings.  Be aware, too, that canes can be taken through security and on board the aircraft.  The TSA will send the cane through the screening devices and then hand it back to its owner.


           After security checks, the TSA Notification Card should be presented to the airline agent at your departure gate.  The agent will notify you of any important changes, like delays or gate changes, since the announcements of these changes are often difficult to hear over airport noise.  Airlines will also let you board the plane ahead of the other passengers so you have a little more time to get situated, and don’t have to stand in the long, slow line. Generally, airline personnel are quite accommodating to travelers’ special needs, but they can’t assist you if you don’t tell them what you require.  Sharing the Notification Card with a flight attendant on the plane will permit that person to be sure you are provided with helpful services.

           Changing planes in strange airports is always a challenge, but it can be especially arduous for an older person.  Ask the airline to provide in-airport transportation between flight gates so that you are not required to hurriedly walk long distances. The request can often be made when you purchase your tickets, by requesting “wheelchair transport”.  Even if you check this option, be sure to remind the airline staff when you check in for your first flight so they can verify that the services will be there when you arrive.

           A friend or adult child may be able to accompany you through the airport. Many airlines provide security “passes” for those accompanying elders to provide assistance through security and on to the departure gate. Even with a helper, the elder should take the lead in providing the Notification Card to TSA and to the airline agent. The agents will be more sensitive to your needs if they are dealing with you first-hand rather than talking to your daughter or son.

          I won’t say planning ahead can make the airport experience enjoyable, but it can certainly make it much smoother. Traveling for vacations or to spend time with distant family members can be a real source of joy, and enhance an active, adventurous life in later years.

           To download a blank Notification Card, visit the TSA’s website at: