Airport screening rules revamped for transgender travellers

The federal agency in charge of security at Canadian airports has changed its policy on screening for transgender travellers. But advocates worry staff haven't been properly trained to execute it.

Advocates raise concerns about proper training, education for front-line staff

CATSA, the federal agency in charge of security at Canadian airports, is changing its procedures for screening transgender travellers. (Sandra Porteous/CBC)

The federal agency in charge of security at Canadian airports has changed its screening procedures to increase sensitivity and privacy for transgender travellers, but advocates worry the procedures could be problematic if staff aren't properly trained in how to carry them out.

An internal operations bulletin by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), issued Sept. 28, 2016, and obtained by CBC through Access to Information, instructs officers on how to handle physical searches.

Under the new procedures, trans passengers can request a search by a male or a female officer, or they can request a "split search," where a female searches one half of the body and a male officer searches the other half.

"It is not always possible to accurately determine a person's gender based on their appearance. Therefore, the screening operations bulletins have been amended to reflect the ability for transgender and transsexual persons to make requests for accommodations to the screening process," the document reads.

A transgender passenger can also request that the screening be conducted in a private area, and that a witness of the opposite sex be present.

The bulletin also offers guidance on treating transgender travellers with respect, including asking for a person's consent before any search and inquiring if any accommodations are required.

Search options offered

"Never ask if someone is transgender or transexual," it reads. "Instead, when a physical search is required and you are unsure about a person's gender status, ask them if they would prefer that the search be conducted by a male or female screening officer."

CATSA spokesman Mathieu Larocque said the new policy was not prompted by complaints or any specific incident.

Egale Canada says the new policy on transgender security at airports needs to come with appropriate training. (Canadian Press)

"We're always looking to update and see if there are new ways to conduct business that could facilitate screening for particular groups or individuals. This was in line with the commitment to find new and better ways to accommodate passengers," he said. 

A new section outlining the procedures was recently posted on the website. Larocque said CATSA is also considering options to get the message out, including social media or outreach to advocacy groups.​ 

The notice said that CATSA consulted with Egale Canada in developing the new protocol.

More harm than good?

But Egale's executive director Helen Kennedy said that although there were discussions, she was not aware the new policy had been implemented. She worries the policy could do more harm than good if there is not a thorough understanding of the policy and comprehensive training for officers.

"It's important to have policies and have them accurate and authentic, but it's something completely different to have the staff on the ground doing this understand what it actually means," she said. "I want to respect the fact that they have taken this initiative, but at the same time, if you want to do it authentically you have to do it right."

Jeremy Dias, director of the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, called the new policy "an amazing first step," but agreed it must be backed up with adequate training.

Right now, Dias said most trans people hide their identity when travelling.

"It's uncomfortable to be presenting at a conference very femininely and feeling comfortable in your own skin, then all of a sudden you have to dress up to go to the airport," Dias said. "It's really unfortunate that we have to do that."

CATSA security officers have been given new directives for screening transgender passengers. (Jacy Schindel/CBC)

With files from Dean Beeby