The elderly, the disabled and those with medical conditions will now be able to get special assistance to move through airport security as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Beginning this week, the Transportation Security Administration is providing 28 passenger support specialists at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, 5 at Palm Beach International and 38 at Miami International.
They are not additional staff but rather specially trained officers who took on the duty on top of their regular jobs. To be selected, they had to demonstrate an ability to deal with complex passenger issues and be customer friendly. Then they received four hours of training, including instruction on the civil rights of those with disabilities and medical conditions.
They also learned how to be discreet.
"I've had women come up to me and say, 'I have breast cancer,' and want to keep that private," said Jayashrii Dwivedi, a TSA specialist based in Fort Lauderdale. "Accordingly, we work with them."
The passenger specialist program is getting underway as the TSA gears up to ease some of its restrictions, allowing small knives and some athletic gear on planes as of April 25.
Although the two programs will speed travelers through security, they're unrelated, said Tim Lewis, federal security director of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
"This is where we've been driving for a long time," he said. "The TSA wants to provide world class security and world class customer service."
Although available to help any passenger, the passenger support specialists target those with health conditions and disabilities. While their role is to make the security process easier, they still must ensure every traveler is properly screened, TSA officials said.
Passengers who want to keep their conditions discreet can request private screenings or go to the TSA web site, tsa.gov, and print out a notification card that can be quietly handed to an officer.
Frequently, the specialists will approach travelers who appear to be having trouble navigating through the checkpoint.
For example, Dwivedi spotted Lou and Barbara Guzzo looking unsure at a security checkpoint. She helped the elderly couple place their belongings in a bin, advised them they didn't have to take off their shoes -- as people 75 and older no longer have to -- and walked them through a metal detector.
"She was dynamite," said Guzzo, a part-time Delray Beach resident, before he and his wife flew to New York. "She explained to me exactly what was going to happen and how to get through."
In the past week, Dwivedi assisted people who need to take insulin, portable oxygen tanks and other medical equipment that otherwise might set off alarms. She also ushered through security an elderly man who had a pacemaker and was in a wheelchair.
"He was able to remain in the wheelchair the whole time," she said. "Each customer is different, with his or her own special needs."
Under a similar program, TSA Cares, passengers can call the agency toll free at 855-787-2227 before heading to the airport to forewarn security officers they will need assistance. The support specialist program was a logical next step, said spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.
The passenger support specialists "are caring, empathetic, calm, poised, and determined to assist and solve any problem that arises," she said.
The TSA works with 50 organizations, representing an array of medical and disability conditions, to bolster the security officers' sensitivity. Among them: AARP, National Council on Aging, American Diabetes Association, Open Doors Organization, Susan G. Komen for the Cure and National Council on Disability.
As she roamed about the busy Concourse F at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, Dwivedi, 31, a TSA officer for eight years, constantly asked travelers if they needed assistance. When she wasn't helping those in need, she ushered along everyday travelers and conducted random checks.
"A lot of times this is a thankless job, and we're not in it for the thanks," Dwivedi said. "But a lot of people really appreciate what we're doing."
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