Flying with legally-purchased pot? Be careful.

My “At the Airport” column for USA TODAY this month is all about what travelers need to consider when flying with cannabis products. Here’s the story: 

In January, California joined the growing list of places where the sale of recreational marijuana is allowed and now one in five Americans lives in a state where buying pot can be a tourist activity.

But if you’re considering traveling with pot, be careful.

Marijuana is still an illegal drug under federal law and post-security areas at airports are ruled by federal agencies. So, as in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Alaska and Nevada, bringing legally-purchased pot past a security checkpoint in the country’s most populated state can still get you into hot water.

Or maybe not.

The Transportation Security Administration says its officers remain focused on security and detecting weapons, explosives and other threats to aviation and passengers – not on sniffing out drugs. But if a TSA officer does finds marijuana or another illegal substance during the security screening of carry-on or checked baggage, the policy is to call in local airport law enforcement, said TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers.

“The passenger’s originating and destination airports are not taken into account,” said Dankers, “TSA’s response to the discovery of marijuana is the same in every state and at every airport – regardless of whether marijuana has been or is going to be legalized.”

But at most commercial airports in California, as in other states where possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana is now legal, once airport law enforcement steps in, nothing much usually happens.

According to the Los Angeles Airport Police, which operates at Los Angeles International Airport and several other Southern California airports, if someone is stopped by the TSA with a state-legal amount of medical of recreational marijuana, airport police would not charge them with anything, “Because it is not a crime.”

The same goes for John Wayne Airport in Orange County.

“If the TSA calls us [about finding marijuana], we’d go up and make sure it is within the legal quantity. If it is, we’d just stand by while the passenger decides what to do with it,” said Lieutenant Mark Gonzales, airport police services bureau chief with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, “TSA may not want it to fly, but that doesn’t mean it is illegal in California.”

Gonzales says so far his team hasn’t been called to the airport checkpoint by TSA to deal with a marijuana issue. “People are reading the law and seem to know what they need to do to get through the checkpoint,” said Gonzales, “I don’t think a lot of people are risking it.”

To alert flyers to the rules about traveling with recreational pot purchased legally in California – and to advertise their cannabis company – in November Organa Brands ran an ad in the bottom of the bins at the security checkpoints at Ontario International Airport.

The message read: “Cannabis is legal. Traveling with it is not. Leave it in California.”

“We were very confident in the positive message that the trays carried,” said Organa Brands spokesman Jackson Tilley, although the company wasn’t too surprised when a month into the campaign the airport asked that the cannabis messages in the trays be removed. “If the landscape changes and cannabis ads are welcomed in airports, we’d be thrilled to run a campaign again,” said Tilley.

There are currently no marijuana-related checkpoint tray ads, signs or ‘amnesty disposal bins currently at the San Francisco, Long Beach or other California airports contacted for this story. But in Nevada, where sales of recreational marijuana became legal in July, 2017, it’s a different story.

Reno-Tahoe International Airport has a sign in its smoking area reminding travelers that marijuana use is not allowed. “In general, we have not seen a big impact from this new law at the airport,” said airport spokeswoman Heidi Jared, “However, we are closely watching other airports and how they are handling this unique situation.”

At McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, there is a formal, airport-wide ban on possessing (or advertising) marijuana, with notices about the Clark County’s Commission’s ruling posted on the airport’s website. And, starting next month, signs about the policy and amnesty boxes for marijuana and other cannabis products will be installed at key locations at McCarran, including at the airport’s consolidated car rental facility.

“These disposal boxes will be outside of the buildings, not at the checkpoints,” said McCarran spokesman Chris Jones, “The intent being [cannabis products] are not allowable anywhere inside the buildings, be it pre or post-security.”

Meanwhile, in Colorado, which back in 2014 was the first state to license stores to sell recreational marijuana, Denver International Airport still maintains its policy of prohibiting marijuana anywhere on airport property.

“Police ask passengers found with [marijuana] to discard the drug,” said airport spokesman Heath Montgomery, “But we’ve had so few instances that we don’t track these contacts anymore.”


Universal access at airports: it could happen

My “At the Airport” column for USATODAY.com this month is about what airports and airlines are doing – or not – to make it easier for people with disabilities to make their way through airports.

Researching the story was an educational and quite sobering experience.

And as the column title says: Travelers with disabilities face obstacles at airports.

Sadly, that’s the case far too often at far too many airports. But if you read through the column a bit, you’ll see that there have been some improvements.  And a lot of those fixes end up making it easier for everyone to travel.

Here’s most of that column:

With laws such as the Air Carrier Access Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, you might assume that people with disabilities no longer encounter obstacles at U.S. airports.

Unfortunately, that’s not true. “Frankly, there isn’t enough policing going on to go look at all these airports to see if they’re 100% compliant,” notes Tim Joniec of the Houston Airport System. “So at some airports it may take a traveler complaining about a service that isn’t there before attention is paid to a problem.”

And even if a traveler does lodge a complaint, “you’d be surprised at how many airports, including some enormous ones, just don’t care,” says Eric Lipp, the executive director of the Open Doors Organization (ODO), a non-profit that works with businesses and the disability community.

For those that do care, next month the Open Doors Organization (ODO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) will host a conference about universal access in airports. On the agenda: tools, technology and training to help both airports and airlines do a better job of serving travelers with disabilities.

One topic sure to be discussed is money. About 55 million people in this country have some sort of disability. This community spends upwards of $14 billion a year on travel; more than $3 billion a year on airplane tickets alone.

With medical care and life expectancy improving, the number of travelers with disabilities is predicted to increase to more than 80 million in the next 20 years. Yet, when the Open Doors Organization surveyed adults with disabilities about travel, more than 80% reported encountering obstacles at airports and with airline personnel.

Universal access universally helpful

Lipp and others point out that removing obstacles at airports makes traveling easier for all passengers, not just those with disabilities. And there are plenty of examples of how making changes makes sense.

Curb cuts help those with strollers and wheeled luggage as much as they assist travelers using wheelchairs, walkers, canes or scooters. Family bathrooms are great for parents traveling with small children, but special lavatories at airports also offer grab bars and other amenities that a disabled traveler, or one traveling with an attendant, might find useful. Many general-use airport bathrooms are cleaner due to ADA-compliant self-flush toilets, automatic faucets and motion-sensing paper towel dispensers. And weave-through entryways reduce germs by eliminating the need for everyone to grab the door handle.

Visual-paging systems, like the high-tech ones now installed airport-wide at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, were originally created to assist hearing-impaired passengers. But all passengers can benefit from having an additional way to receive emergency messages and courtesy pages.

And of course, air passengers must be able to get to the gate before they can fly.

At George Bush Intercontinental Airport, passengers must now either walk or negotiate elevators, escalators or a bus when trying to reach Terminal A from Terminal B. That barrier will disappear in October when the airport’s above-ground train finally links Terminal A to the other four terminals. “Those with mobility challenges will certainly benefit from this,” says the airport’s Tim Joniec, “But because 70% of our passengers make a connection at IAH, this will definitely be noticed by all travelers.”

Some airlines embrace universal access

Airlines, which are responsible for providing wheelchair services at airports, have also made some special accommodations that end up smoothing out the journey for all passengers.

If you travel with a pet, you’ve probably noticed more fenced, landscaped animal relief areas at airports. Those pet parks are popping up because the Carrier Access Act now requires airlines to make relief areas available for service dogs accompanying travelers.

Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air often uses ramps instead of stairs to board all passengers, not just those using wheelchairs, onto smaller Horizon planes at gates where jet bridges are unavailable. “That way no one has to negotiate steep steps to and from the airplane and everyone can enter the airplane the same way,” says Ray Prentice, Alaska Airlines’ director of Customer Advocacy.

And for the past three years, Continental Airlines (which will legally merge with United Airlines on October 1st) has been getting feedback and advice from a thirteen member advisory board made up of passengers with disabilities.

Before the board was in place, the airline would wait for a passenger with a disability to complain about an access issue before a policy would get tweaked.  Continental’s disability programs manager Bill Burnell says “Now we can anticipate problem areas before they become complaints. And try to go beyond the minimum ADA requirements. We’ve learned there’s a big difference between something being ADA compliant and it being universally accessible.”

Travel tidbits: bikes & air passenger rights for travelers in Canada

As part of a growing eco-effort, guests staying at Fairmont Hotels across Canada will now be able to take advantage of a cool new amenity:  complimentary use of BMW cruise bikes. The hotels even promise to keep some child-sized bikes in stock.

Of course, they can’t have enough bikes for everyone, so priority will be given to members of the Fairmont President’s Club. (Joining that club is free and in addition to putting you at the front of the bike-line, you’ll also get free high-speed Internet access and some other benefits.)

bike-wheelsAnd speaking of Canada, stay tuned for more details about a proposed new passenger bill of rights that Air Canada and other Canadian airlines are putting forth in hopes of avoiding a new round of government regulations.  Submitted to the Canadian Transportation Agency as a set of proposed “airline tariffs” the new rules spell out, for example,  how the airlines will handle delayed luggage and what will be done for passengers whose flights are delayed, cancelled, or overbooked.

Trying again: rights for passengers stuck at the airport

Last week yet another piece of legislation was introduced in an effort to improve airline service and insure relief for passengers left stranded at airports in the United States. HR 6355 – or the Air Service Improvement Act of 2008 – was introduced by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Jim Oberstar and aviation subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello.

The bill would require airports and air carriers to create and file emergency contingency plans with the Secretary of Transportation.

Airport plans would need to include “a description of how the airport operator…will provide for the deplanement of passengers following excessive delays and will provide for the sharing of facilities and make gates available at the airport in an emergency.”

Airline plans would need to show how each carrier would allow passengers to deplane, share facilities in an emergency, and provide food, water, restroom facilities, cabin ventilation, and access to medical treatment for passengers on planes stuck on the ground for an extended period of time without access to the terminal.

You can read the full bill here.