Disabled passengers complain of treatment by airport security staff

Passengers with disabilities or travelling with prescribed medicinal marijuana say officers with the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority need better rules and more sensitivity, according to complaints filed with the Crown corporation.

Travellers say airport security rules also unclear for carrying prescribed medicinal marijuana

BC News has obtained more than 800 passenger complaints about the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. (Jacy Schindel/CBC)

People with disabilities or travelling with prescribed marijuana say they're getting a rough ride at airport security, according to documents obtained under Access to Information.

In one case, a woman phoned the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) to complain how employees treated her daughter, who is visually impaired.

She claimed that after her daughter's guide dog went through a walk-through metal detector, the screening officer started to manually check the animal. Another officer told him to stop touching the dog, remove the harness and put the harness through the X-ray machine.

The mother, who was travelling with her daughter, interjected by saying that wasn't correct. According to her, that's when a female officer responded, "I can tell by looking at your daughter, she is not blind."

A few months earlier, another passenger reported being asked to remove the harness of his service animal. When he challenged the screening officer, he said the woman told him it was standard procedure.

But it's not. The security authority's website clearly tells passengers, "You don't need to remove your service animal's harness, but carrying bags or pouches must go through the X-ray. The screening officer will visually inspect your service animal and its harness."

Thanks for making travel suck.- Air passenger's complaint

The documents describe many other occasions where people with mobility problems were ordered to remove footwear and braces, lower their pants to show an ostomy bag, or where staff made unwelcome comments.

"One officer jumped at my presence, stared and remarked upon the 'novelty' of my [wheelchair]," one woman complained before adding, "I am not an anomaly. It is important for disabled folk to move [through] this world without being deemed circus freaks."

In one heavily redacted complaint, a man with an internal medical device was ordered to pass through the walk-through metal detector even after showing the screening officer a medical document warning him not to.

Medical marijuana

The documents also contain several reports of people getting held up once they told security staff they were travelling with their doctor-prescribed medicinal marijuana.

One parent complained on behalf of his son, who he said declared his medication at screening.

"This is a prescribed medication and you need to have a clear policy on this. There are hundreds of prescribed narcotics that go [through] screening every hour and they are not subjected to this kind of treatment, requiring an RCMP officer to attend the screening process to review the prescription documentation for a small amount of prescribed medication," reads the complaint.

The parent went on to say the security official eventually said their son should have packed the drug in his checked luggage. Yet the federal government's travel website advises passengers to pack all medications in carry-on baggage.

Another man who told security he was carrying medicinal marijuana reported in his complaint that neither the officer nor his supervisor knew what to do. After a 45-minute wait, three police officers arrived at the checkpoint. The complaint says the passenger stated he felt as though he was treated like a criminal.

When contacted by CBC News, a spokesperson for the security authority said "screening officers do not have the authority to accept or refuse Health Canada documentation on the use of marijuana" and that they must notify police when they find the drug on passengers or in their belongings. The agency's website does not provide any guidance or information for passengers who wish to travel with their prescribed marijuana.

Too close for comfort

The documents also contain many allegations of rough or inappropriate touching.

"After I finished the body scan, I was told to get out of the machine. A guy who did the body scanning machine saw the screen and without warning he touched my breasts. And after that he apologized that he didn't recognize I was a woman," one passenger complained.

Physical pat-downs are supposed to be done by someone of the same gender, but that doesn't mean passengers always find them acceptable.

"I have had the scanner beep for my bra due to the under wire many times," one woman said, "but I have never had my breasts touched the way the officer touched me. She did not use the back of her hand but actually cupped my breasts."

In another complaint, a veteran reported being publicly humiliated when an officer patted down his groin and told him, "There is something hard in your groin." The man said he was embarrassed by the comment, as well as having to tell the officer about the calcium deposit in that area.

Security staff subjected to abuse

If the complaints are anything to go by, it is also clear airport security employees are also subject to abuse from passengers. Several angry passenger emails contain hateful racist rants and offensive language.

"I was again stopped for this screening from amongst a bunch of people of different colours," one person said, before suggesting CATSA "move these security screening stands to staff who have more neutral backgrounds." 

Another man, after complaining about the ethnic makeup at one security checkpoint, asked, "What happened to white Canadians? Jesus H. Christ."

For the most part, though, passengers complain most about not feeling respected while going through security or having items confiscated.

"Fondue forks aren't specifically mentioned on your list, but they were not any sharper than regular forks," one passenger argued.

"I had to check my bag after a long lineup because of a [snow-globe]. It [contained] clearly less than 100 ml [of water] but according to [the security officer] it was over 100 ml. She had no basis for this, and there was no way for her to prove it. She looked at it like a scientist and assessed the amount of liquid in the globe," said the passenger, who concluded with, "Thanks for making travel suck."


Alison Crawford is a senior reporter in CBC's parliamentary bureau, covering justice, public safety, the Supreme Court and Liberal Party of Canada.