By: Jan Chait
John Hughes of Woodburn, Oregon, had never bothered to get a letter from his doctor stating that he has diabetes and is required to carry sharp-pointed insulin-pump infusion sets, lancets and emergency syringes with him into airplane cabins.
That was before the terrorist attacks on September 11. Since then, there has been a flurry of increased security regulations prohibiting sharp objects, including “scissors, a metal comb with a sharp handle, corkscrews with small knife blades, metal hair picks, razor blades and even a sharp meat thermometer,” according to a September 17 article in The Oregonian.
After reading the article, Hughes called the airport in Portland, Oregon to explain that he has diabetes and must travel with syringes and other sharp objects.
“They said, ‘Without a doctor’s note, we won’t let you through,'” Hughes said.
Mixed Results From Diabetic Air Travelers
Some people with diabetes, such as Linda Bork, who flew from Maui, Hawaii, to Newark, New Jersey on September 15, encountered no problems.
“We went through security at the Maui airport,” she said. “All of my supplies were in a carry-on bag and my purse. The bags were put through the usual x-ray machines. They were not hand-searched. I did not have to discuss my supplies with anyone at all.”
Others, however, have encountered difficulties, according to Jerry Franz, national vice president of communications for the American Diabetes Association, who reported anecdotal evidence of difficulties.
“One person with diabetes called and said she had some challenges getting on a plane with her insulin pen and syringes,” he said.
An article in the September 19 St. Petersburg Times quoted Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Linda Rutherford as saying passengers “are being allowed on with insulin-injection and blood-testing kits if they have prescription forms and the bracelets or necklaces diabetics use to identify their condition.”
Another airline had a different response.
“I called US Airways, and a woman told me I could transport needles and lancets in my carry-on bag as long as I had a bottle of insulin with the manufacturer’s label on it,” Liz Davis of San Francisco says in an e-mailed note. “I specifically asked whether I would need a prescription or letter of medical necessity and she said, ‘No.’ I think I may carry them anyway, just to be on the safe side.”
Even the Federal Aviation Administration gives differing answers, depending on who is asked, Franz said, adding, “There is some confusion. It appears not to be a question anticipated by anyone.”
It also was not anticipated by the American Transport Association, the nation’s oldest and largest airline-trade association. A call by Diabetes Health to ask about carrying diabetes supplies onboard elicited a startled, “We hadn’t thought about that!”
Get a Letter From Your Doctor
Until some resolution is reached, Franz suggests that people with diabetes “carry signed letters from their doctors, as well as be able to show a prescription. It probably would be prudent to do that ahead of time.”
You should be able to get copies of prescriptions from your pharmacist.
“We’re trying to do what we can” with regard to advocating government flight-safety regulations that take diabetes supplies into consideration, Franz said.
There are other considerations, as well.
“Many of our patients were in New York [on September 11], or traveling and stuck without family and often without sufficient medications,” wrote Dr. Joe Prendergast of Atherton, California, known on the Internet as Dr. Joe, the Diabetes Doctor.
Bring Extra Food Supplies
Unexpected delays mean being prepared with more than extra supplies and medications. Those who take blood-sugar-lowering insulin or oral medications need to be prepared with additional food. An Indiana man who was in Paris, France when the terrorists attacks took place recounted taking a 48-hour odyssey from Europe to Indiana on September 14 and 15 due to a combination of long check-in lines and delayed, re-routed and cancelled flights.
“Take foods that will stabilize you for awhile,” says Karen Chalmers, director of nutrition services and head of the insulin-pumping program for the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, Massachusetts. She suggested foods that contain carbohydrates and fats, such as packages of peanut butter and crackers, cheese and crackers, or even a peanut butter sandwich or two. “Don’t forget to take foods to treat low blood sugars, too, such as glucose tabs or Lifesavers,” Chalmers says.
What About Meters and Pumps?
Blood-glucose testing meters and insulin pumps could also arouse suspicions, judging from reports that cell phones and other devices are being tested by airport security.
Hughes is willing to satisfy any inquiries about the equipment he carries.
“I’ll stick my finger and do a test if they want to make sure my meter is safe,” he says. “I’ll even eat a granola bar and give myself a bolus.”
Until the hodgepodge of requirements are jelled into a cohesive plan, your best bet is to call both your airline and airport and ask what documentation is needed to ease you through security checkpoints.
Once you are going through security, “if you don’t get satisfaction or are refused,” Franz says, “ask to see the FAA representative at the airport.”