Ever-Tightening Security Creates Misery for Senior Fliers

Anti-terror measures, cramped planes dissuade older Americans from traveling.

January 4, 2010, 5:54 PM

Jan. 5, 2010— -- At the height of the security crackdown on New Year's Eve, the Choi Stern family -- watching Air Canada officials frisk an 8-year-old -- turned their attention to an elderly man in wheelchair.

"We were joking that they were going to confiscate the IV drip because it was over 3 ounces," said Irena Choi Stern, assistant dean of alumni relations at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.The family of five had flown into Amsterdam on Christmas, the same day Detroit-bound Northwest Flight 253 averted a bomb attack, and were returning to New York.

"We had to check our luggage -- we never check our bags, they fit in the overhead -- because they were only allowing one small carry-on," she told ABCNews.com. "My son made the joke. Worse were people cutting in line."

Their observations weren't far off.

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Air travel has been bedlam since 9/11, and for senior citizens, enhanced security measures have made air travel increasingly daunting.

"I already sense that my older patients are traveling less," said Dr. Eric G. Tangalos, an internist and professor of geriatric medicine at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic.

"They have less capacity to handle the delays, less capacity to handle the change in flights, less willingness to handle the additional time through screening. And now, more time in their seats."

"New regulations are just one more reason for older passenger to consider that travel is no longer worth the effort or the risk," he told ABCNews.com.

From the "liquid bomber" to the "shoe bomber" to the "underwear bomber," each air terrorist attempt results in new security regulations.

Right after the arrest of Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) quickly outlined new rules: Passengers must remain in their seats and access to carry-on luggage would be restricted one hour before arrival at a destination.

But the TSA guidelines were quickly ditched on domestic flights and left to the discretion of the airlines how strictly they would be followed. Still, those on inbound international flights will still face these restrictions.

Long waits standing in line at the airport, flight delays, poor air quality that dries the membranes, cramped seating that impedes sleep and jet lag are just some of the conditions that are especially challenging for seniors.

Long periods of immobility can also lead to blood clots.

"It puts the system through more stress," said Tangalos. "Instead of arriving at 10 at night, it's 2 in the morning. It's very tough on older people."

"When we are younger we can handle a multiplicity of intrusions and changes in our lives," he said. "We can go longer without food and water and without sleep. We can sit in a chair for a longer period of time. All that capacity starts to disappear. Fragility doesn't appear overnight."

"Travel may be the spice of life for 20- and 30-year-olds, but not for 60- and 70-year-olds," said Tangalos.

Air Travel Stresses Out the Elderly

Adding new hassles and indignities to travel, seniors say, "Gosh, it's not worth it anymore," according to Tangalos. "The travel industry should be paying more attention."

According to a U.S. Travel Association survey, 31.9 million "matures" -- those who are 65 and older -- traveled for leisure purposes in 2009, representing 19.5 percent of the 163 million total leisure travelers.

"None of our data indicates a hesitancy to fly or to encounter problems with TSA," said association spokesperson Cathy Keefe. "I would expect that infrequent senior leisure travelers might find the air process daunting, but any infrequent traveler (not just seniors) is likely to encounter the same issues."

According to a 2009 AARP report, 29 percent of its members aged 50-75 said that "travel the world" is a life goal, a 21-point drop from 2005.

Travelers cited the economy, but tightened security has also taken a toll on senior travel.

"Flying ceased to be fun a long time ago," said Diane Duyos Vacca, a New York City blogger who is approaching 70. "But this is ridiculous."

"Why can't we be proactive instead of always reacting to the latest scare?" she said of the new rules. "Are they going to snatch blankets away from sleeping passengers? Are they going to keep me from working with my computer, fixing my face before landing, reading my Kindle, knitting my latest project?"

Hampton, N.H., dog walker and former tennis pro Kathy Varone said security checks "are a joke."

"At 58 I think I can still manage," she told ABCNews.com. "I would hope that the security is already doubled checked before getting on the plane. "Once we are on the plane,what's the point of all the rules, it's too late."

But Kenneth Budd, executive editor of AARP, the magazine, said seniors are dissuaded by bigger issues than security.

"You are looking at the most cramped aisle ways and getting in and out of seats," he told ABCNews.com. "You have to put your luggage overhead in the bin. If you have knee problems or arthritis or back problems the planes are not designed for anyone over a certain age."

Many seniors also complain of the difficulty of getting wheelchair service, according to Budd. "They make a request and it's not there or someone else has taken it."

Bob Fischman, a New York City insurance broker, used to travel the world, flying to his vacation home in Florida once a month. But now, at 72, he makes only two trips a year.

Airliners Not Built For Seniors

"The security lines are impossible and if you're traveling outside the country, you have to be there at least three hours in advance," he told ABCNews.com.

"It's a hassle to take off your shoes. I saw a man much older than I standing there without his shoes with his arms spread out and they are doing a wand on him. It's absurd to put a senior through this."

He has been stopped by security officials for carrying a blood pressure machine in his travel bag. "All of a sudden there was this conference," he said. "Things like that are so disturbing."

Fischman, who has a heart condition and is on blood-thinning medication, must move around the cabin to prevent blood clots.

"It's a hassle getting up and down the aisle," said Fischman, who also has a back condition. "The planes are packed and if you need to use the restroom, forget about it. I have the old prostate issue and by the time I get to the restroom they are a mess. I just don't find any enjoyment when flying. It's a cattle car."

"I remember travel used to be an exciting thing that you'd look forward to the plane was comfortable and I even relished the food. When you were traveling out of the country, even economy, you got a menu with three different styles of food."

"Now, you've got your knees in your mouth and you can't move and there's no breathing room," he said. "The service is negligible, if at all."

But Linda Prospero, a Princeton, N.J., writer who just turned 60, said she would not curtail her air travel despite the new challenges.

"It's annoying, yes," said Prospero, who writes a food blog, "Ciao Chow Linda." "If that's what it takes to make us safe while flying, so be it. There's a reason that El Al is the safest airline to fly in terms of terrorist attempts and maybe we should take a lesson from them."

For decades, Israel's national airline El Al has been the envy of the world's airline industry for its tight security. The airline has not had a terror incident since a 1968 hijacking.

"For me, I wouldn't say it's age that makes travel harder, but the cramped airline seats which have been in place for years," said Prospero, who is 5-feet, 9-inches tall. "I do have back problems and knee problems and the small seats I normally have to sit in are very restricting."

But she is willing to put up with the risk and the discomfort: "I just love to travel," said Prospero, who leaves for a ski trip to the Italian Alps in two weeks.

"We'll just leave for the airport a little earlier and have a drink at one of the new places in Newark Airport, relax and read until boarding," she said. "As I get older, I have learned to not get uptight about those long lines at security, as long as I have allowed sufficient time before the flight. Some things I used to fret about as a younger person, I just resign myself to now."

"These are not things we have much control over, so why work yourself into a tizzy?" asked Prospero, reminding that "tizzy is a word only us old fogies would use."

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