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Sunday, April 15, 2012

TSA touts pilot program for seniors

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The one-month-old pilot program allowing seniors to breeze through security in Orlando and three other U.S. airports is “terrific,” moving them – and other lines – more quickly, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

If it continues to prove successful, the new program likely will be expanded to Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, although the TSA refused to speculate on when.

For many of South Florida’s 600,000 seniors, the day can’t come soon enough when they can largely avoid patdowns and move through checkpoints without taking off their shoes or light outerwear.

“There are a lot of infirm people who go through security in a wheelchair,”and they don’t need that hassle, said Rochelle Koenig, 77, of Weston, who’s planning to fly to the Northeast in June.

Under the TSA’s program, those 75 and older still must go through scanner machines. If officers detect something suspicious or want a second look, they are allowed to go though the scanners a second time rather than receive a patdown.

“A lot of older people are not used to having anyone touch them, and consider a patdown somewhat of an invasion,” said Edith Lederberg, 82, executive director of the Aging And Disability Resource Center in Sunrise.

About 600 people per day now take advantage of the new procedures at Orlando International Airport, along with hundreds of others in Chicago, Denver and Portland, Ore., TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz said.

“The pilot program has, in fact, been expanded to all lanes at both checkpoints at Orlando International,” she said.

On average, about 92,000 travelers depart from South Florida’s three airports each day. As many as 10,000 of those might be 75 or older, according to senior citizen agencies.

For many elderly people, who are frail or have medical issues, such as hip replacements, the hardest part about flying is getting through security. Many have a hard time bending over to take off their shoes. Others have difficulty standing in long lines. Most are uncomfortable receiving a pat down.

“Fear of getting through the lines can kill their travel plans,” said Lederberg, adding that South Florida overall has the third largest population of seniors in the country, close to a million over age 65.

Ruth Sherman, 89, of Sunrise, was one of three women who alleged that TSA officers made them disrobe during secondary screenings prior to a flight at New York’s La Guardia airport in December. She said she is still angry, but happy the new procedures are in place.

“I couldn’t go through that again,” she said.

“We would welcome anything that would assist our passengers,” said Casandra Davis, spokeswoman for Palm Beach International Airport.

“Ultimately, we want the traveling public’s experience to be as good possible,” said Greg Meyer, spokesman for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport.

The TSA said the senior program is part of its efforts to shift to risk-based, intelligence-driven screening procedures, rather than subject all travelers to the same level of scrutiny.

“These initiatives are enabling us to focus our resources on those passengers who could pose the greatest risk, including those on terrorist watch lists,” TSA Administrator John Pistole told the National Press Club last month.

Last fall, the TSA began allowing children 12 and younger to pass through a security program similar to the new senior policy.

The agency also has implemented the PreCheck program in Miami and several other airports, allowing trusted frequent fliers to be channeled into express lanes without taking off shoes or removing laptops. The program is be started in Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa by the end of the year.

Will the new rules prompt more seniors to fly? Probably not, Lederberg said.

“I don’t know if they’ll travel more,” she said. “But they’ll travel more happily.”