From baby food to breast milk, navigating TSA with your traveling toddler can be a challenge.
In exchange for a little extra testing/searching, TSA allows parents traveling with small children to carry on liquids in excess of the 3-1-1 rule (i.e. more than 3.4 oz of water, formula, food, etc.)
However, there’s a catch. You can only carry on what is medically necessary while “on the plane.” That was a problem on our recent trip to South America. Enter TSA Cares.
Following this KPIX ConsumerWatch report, TSA agreed to broaden the scope of its TSA Cares program. It was originally designed for travelers with disabilities.
TSA told me on camera that travelers with extenuating circumstances (like specialized luggage) can now reach out to TSA for assistance—and in some cases, for exceptions to standard policies.
So, I put it to the test. I called TSA Cares several days before our flight to let them know I needed to carry on two dozen 4 oz baby food pouches.
Mind you, I am already TSA Pre-Check certified, so I have undergone an extensive TSA background check. I also offered to let them test the food in advance and get a prescription for the food from my child’s doctor.
It seemed reasonable to me that TSA Cares could make an exception for the carry-on items that were medically necessary once we landed—but not on the plane.
Issue 1: We were traveling with our 20-month old to visit family in jungle regions of Argentina and Paraguay. The CDC requires typhoid vaccines when traveling to these regions, but Baby C is too young to get one (she did get the yellow fever vaccine—a traumatic decision fit for a blog post of its own).
Our pediatrician, the CDC and the travel clinic nurse all stressed that we should not allow her to eat any raw fruits, vegetables or anything that might have been washed with local water. We even had to bathe her with bottled water.
We were advised to bring high fiber baby food to supplement her diet each day. That translated to two dozen 4 oz squeeze pouches of pureed fruits and veggies, which technically qualify as liquid or gelatin, according to the TSA.
While our baby food was medically necessary for our two-week trip, it was not medically necessary for the plane ride itself.
Issue 2: We were flying in and out of airports with high rates of bag theft and other petty theft (the kinds of airports where they “Saran Wrap” your bags curbside for security).
I was terrified enough about the snakes, bugs, yellow fever, typhoid and car seat issues. This self-admitted helicopter parent was not willing to also risk checking what could have been my only child’s only source of nourishment in the South American jungle (aside from the fabulous Asado & Chipa of course)!
And no, they do not sell equivalent products there. Local children are acclimated to the food & water. It doesn’t make them sick.
How TSA “Cared”:
When I first called TSA Cares at 1-855-787-2227, I spoke with a very nice woman who described all of the child carry-on regulations in detail (which I already knew).
I explained that I was trying to avoid a 6am debate with security agents about the medical necessity of the pouches (while trying to wrangle a toddler before our 15 hour flight). So, she gave me the number for the TSA Cares Passenger Screening Specialist at the airport we were flying out of (SFO).
When I called, I was connected to the TSA Duty Manager at SFO. He explained that, while you don’t need a prescription for something to be considered medically necessary, you do need to use it on the plane in order to carry it on. He went on to explain that “TSA Cares is not intended to make exceptions for passengers with special circumstances.”
During previous interviews, TSA agents led me to believe that TSA Cares was designed to make exceptions for certain extenuating circumstances where it could rule out safety risks in advance.
As a journalist, I felt TSA has been disingenuous with me “on the record” about the extent to which its TSA Cares program actually “cared.” I was concerned about other passengers (especially those traveling with kids or medical issues) that would face similar complications with items of even greater medical necessity.
That’s when I finally pulled out the “reporter card” and reached out to my media contacts at TSA for a response to my “new interpretation” of the TSA Cares policy: Either the TSA is denying the risk of stolen/lost checked luggage when traveling internationally to high-risk airports… Or, TSA Cares does not “care” that it may be potentially denying a child access to products deemed medically necessary once she arrives at her destination.
For security reasons, I fully understand why TSA would not allow all passengers flying with a child to carry on unlimited liquids. In their own words, “TSA’s primary job is to ensure explosives do not get on to a plane.”
However, as a TSA Pre-Check certified passenger, providing three days’ notice, a prescription and the opportunity to test the contents of the medically necessary carry-on items, I couldn’t imagine how those baby food pouches could be considered a high risk.
I had hoped to use my experience to provide a “How-To” for other parents flying with baby necessities they could not risk checking. I had clearly hit a dead end.
Then, a TSA media rep responded with a Hail Mary suggestion… and it worked!
Step 1: Call TSA Cares 1-855-787-2227 (at least 72 hours before your flight).
Explain your circumstance and ask for the number of the passenger screening specialist or TSA Duty Manager at the airport you’re flying out of.
Step 2: Call the Duty Manager (at least 72 hours before your flight)
Explain your special circumstances and ask if there is any way to get pre-authorization for your special needs. Offer to come to the airport in advance for pre-screening of specialized items.
Document the name of the agent you speak with and everything he/she tells you.
Ask the agent to document your request and to notify the passenger screening specialist or duty manager who will be working on the day and time of your flight.
Step 3: Call the Duty Manager again (as you’re pulling up to the airport)
NOTE: This is a crucial time-saving suggestion from my TSA media contact.
Ask the TSA Duty Manager to meet you at the check-in counter before you check your bags.
If you wait until you’re going through security after your bags are checked, you may be forced to throw the items away. You’ll also waste time if the security agents have to call the TSA Duty Manager to meet you there. BE NICE and explained you’ve called TSA Cares.
Step 4: At the Check-In Counter
Ask the TSA Duty Manager to examine the items you want to carry on and explain their necessity in person.
Best Case Scenario: The Duty Manager will authorize the security checkpoint agents to allow you to carry on your items.
Worst Case Scenario: You’ll have to check them and risk bag theft/loss etc.
Our Happy Ending:
We followed the four-step process above. After days of debate over the medical necessity of the squeeze pouches, the TSA Duty Manager finally agreed to let us carry them on. Full Disclosure: By this point, the TSA agent knew I was a reporter, so that may have influenced his decision.
In response to my experience, TSA provided the following statement:
TSA Cares is not designed to provide exceptions to passengers, rather to provide assistance. If an exception is needed beyond what is already provided by reaching out to TSA Cares, security officers or a manager at the airport may make that determination at the time of travel.
In this case, the bottom line is, by working with the TSA, this passenger was able to carry on the needed baby food for travel.
Ultimately, one of our bags was broken into and rifled through. Lucky for us, the culprit didn’t realize the value of all the baby crap in the suitcase he selected. He stole our lock, but nothing else of importance.
See the upcoming blog “Traveling Toddler Must-Haves” for more on all that “valuable baby crap.”