military

TSA eases rules for wounded warriors at airport checkpoints

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has expanded the services it offers to wounded military service members at airport security checkpoints nationwide.

Starting Wednesday, March 27, 2013 injured troops and veterans will no longer be required to remove their shoes, jackets or hats at airport security checkpoints as long as they call ahead to arrange for the expedited service.

“We’ve had a wounded warrior program in place for some time to assist injured members of the military through the checkpoint process,” said TSA spokesperson Nico Melendez.

“Starting now, in airports with or without TSA PreCheck lanes, these heroes will be escorted to and through the checkpoints and will not have to remove hats, caps, light jackets or shoes.”

The expedited checkpoint rules for wounded warriors are now much the same as those the TSA offers for travelers over 75 and under 12 years of age, but in order to receive this new service, a wounded warrior or a travel companion must contact the Military Severely Injured Joint Services Operations Center via email or by phone (888.262.2396) at least 24 hours ahead of travel to be assured of the special service.

“Anything that can be done to make is easier for wounded warriors to go through airport checkpoints is a good thing,” said Garry Augustine, national service director for the non-profit Disabled American Veterans.

He said amputees wearing prosthetic legs have reported difficult and uncomfortable experiences at airport checkpoints when asked to remove their shoes, so being able to leave shoes on “is definitely going to be an advantage.”

The new expedited program for wounded warriors is being added to the existing program that offers expedited screening to U.S. service personnel in uniform who, with proper identification, and whether traveling on official orders or not, are currently not required to remove their shoes or boots unless their footwear sets off alarms in the checkpoint security equipment.

In addition to the new expedited procedures for wounded warriors, the TSA recently announced that, beginning April 25, small knives and a variety of previously prohibited items — such as ski poles, pool cues and golf clubs (two per passenger) — will be allowed as carry-on items.

(My story TSA extends expedited security to wounded warriors first appeared on NBCNews.com Travel)

TSA eases airport security routine for wounded warriors

Staff Sgt. Guillermo Tejada lost both legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010. Now rehabilitating in San Diego, Tejada travels regularly to compete in hand-cycling races and marathons.

When flying out of San Diego International Airport, Tejada receives the royal treatment. “They’re waiting for us at the curb and take us through the whole process of checking in and going through security,” he said.

Getting through airport security can be stressful on anyone. For wounded military service members, it can be a nightmare.

The Transportation Security Administration recently expanded a program to make the checkpoint experience for wounded warriors as simple as possible.

“Depending on the airport, the assistance provided can be meeting the passenger curbside when they get to the airport, assisting with checking of bags, getting boarding passes, and assisting through screening,” said TSA spokesperson Nico Melendez.

TSA’s Wounded Warrior Accommodations program is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. While TSA doesn’t directly provide all the services Melendez listed, it will — if alerted — coordinate a wounded warrior’s airport experience with airport staff, USO volunteers and airlines.

Many of the severely injured service members are traveling to or from hospitals and military bases, but many are going home, to a new duty station or on vacation.

The program has been active at a few airports for several years, serving more than 5,000 wounded military personnel traveling through Washington’s Reagan National Airport since 2010, Melendez said. In the past year, 1,500 people have been assisted at San Diego International Airport, according to Cheryl Paine, the TSA official who coordinates the program there.

Pre-check and other expedited, risk-based screening programs for people 75 and older and for those age 12 and under are now in place at most airports, so Melendez said it’s  possible to offer the wounded warrior program nationwide. “If we know who they are and know they are coming through, we can expand the pre-check program and tailor it to their limitations and needs,” he said.

“After a decade of war we have more and more wounded warriors going through airports,” he said. “If they don’t know these tools are available it won’t do them any good.”

(My story – TSA eases airport security routine for wounded warriors – first appeared on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin.)

At JFK airport, some workers getting trained to be N.I.C.E.

Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone who worked at the airport was nice?

At John F. Kennedy International Airport, they’re working on it.

On May 22, 30 veterans who work at the airport for several airlines, government agencies and private security and service companies will get N.I.C.E (Neutralize Irritations Customers Experience) program training to teach them how to use skills learned in the military to help frustrated passengers at the airport.

Many other airport employees at JFK have already gone through N.I.C.E training offered by the Human Resiliency Institute based at New York’s Fordham University, which also has a special program for veterans. Now the program is tapping vets already working at the airport to use their leadership skills to help enhance customer service.

“Through our Edge4Vets program, we at Fordham have first-hand knowledge of the strong leadership strengths vets possess,” said institute director Tom Murphy. “Now we’re tapping resources offered by vets working at the airport and training them to apply their inherent leadership strengths and their ‘N.I.C.E.’ tools to help their airport enhance service.”

Murphy said the special N.I.C.E. Corps training for veterans at the kick-off event in JFK Terminal 4 Tuesday will include will include role–playing exercises in which the veterans will use the keen observation skills they’ve learned in the military to spot and come to the aid of passengers in need of assistance. Members of the N.I.C.E. Corps will also be trained to note when other airport employees go out of their way to help frustrated passengers and to document those success stories on the ‘N.I.C.E’ website.

Employees caught using N.I.C.E. skills become eligible to win a variety of incentive awards, including gift checks, meals, and hotel stays. Two veterans participating in the JFK N.I.C.E. Corps will win a fishing trip to Alaska so they can catch salmon for a salmon-bake for the whole team.

The chance of winning that fishing trip isn’t what convinced veteran Egbert Haynes, a TSA supervisor at JFK, to volunteer to be captain of the JFK N.I.C.E. Corps. “I’m from New York; when I need fish I go to the fish market,” said Haynes. “But when I heard of the program and saw the potential to recognize the good things done daily by airport employees outside of their job description, it all made sense.”

In addition to JFK, employees at Los Angeles International Airport, Pittsburgh International Airport and Manchester-Boston Regional Airport have been trained in the N.I.C.E. program.

*My story, JFK trains its workers to be N.I.C.E., first appeared on msnbc.com.

Welcome Home a Hero program ending at DFW

 

Those American flags and welcome signs won’t be needed at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport anymore.

Every day, for the past eight years, at least one chartered plane carrying U.S. soldiers heading home for two weeks of rest and recuperation from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan has touched down at both Dallas/Fort Worth and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airports.

And for every flight at DFW, volunteers in the “Welcome Home a Hero” program have gathered to enthusiastically greet the returning soldiers.

“The welcome is a festive event with recorded patriotic music and anywhere from 30 to 300 cheering people holding flags and homemade signs and banners,” said Donna Cranston, coordinator of the Dallas/Fort Worth program. The greeting has become so well-known that some soldiers request to arrive in the U.S. via Dallas instead of Atlanta, Cranston said, even though that means they may have to wait longer for a connecting flight home.

But the drawdown of troops in Iraq and the shift to shorter deployments means there are no longer two full planes of R&R-bound soldiers returning home each day. So the U.S. army has decided to consolidate the flights into Atlanta.

March 14 will be the final Dallas arrival.

The conclusion of the flight is bittersweet news for some troops and for many volunteers who have welcomed home more than 460,000 inbound soldiers who have touched down in Dallas since 2004.

“The soldiers get a hero’s welcome when they come through Dallas, and it’s an uplifting and emotional experience,” said Army Lt. Col. Trisha McAfee, commander of the army’s Personnel Assistance Point at the Dallas airport. “They didn’t get that in other wars. But the consolidation is a good thing because it means many soldiers are spending less time in the war zone and getting home sooner.”

In Dallas/Fort Worth, many volunteers who welcome home troops at the airport also joined the USO so that they could be part of the send-off activities for active-duty military as well. “One volunteer has made more than 45,000 neck pillows to give to soldiers on their way back,” said McAfee.

“It’s always a happier occasion when they come in,” said Linda Tinnerman, 71, who with 78-year-old Constance Carman became known as one of the “Huggin’ and Kissin’ Grandmas” — dispensing free hugs to every returning soldier. “We are also there just to talk and visit with the soldiers.”

While the final R&R flight will arrive at Dallas/Fort Worth on March 14, the last departing flight is scheduled for March 30. After that, the U.S. Army’s daily chartered R&R flights will arrive and depart solely from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where there’s a much smaller “Welcome Home a Hero” and send-off program.

“It’s a matter of logistics,” said Mark Brown, Personnel Assistance Point commander at the Atlanta airport. “At DFW, the soldiers come out into the non-secure side. In Atlanta, they stay on the secure side to connect to their flight. So we have airport employees come out to help with the welcome.”

(A slightly different version of my story appeared on msnbc.com Travel)

Viral video forces Delta to change bag fees for soldiers

It’s already been pulled from YouTube, but a video-gone-viral posted by some soldiers returning from Afghanistan has forced Delta Air Lines to change its checked bag policy and allow active duty soldiers traveling under orders to check four bags for free when flying coach.

Delta changed its policy after being widely criticized for charging the soldiers $2,800 in extra bag fees.

Here’s more of the story that I worked on for msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin blog:

The soldiers’ military orders authorize them to travel with up to four bags. But at the check-in counter at the Baltimore airport on Tuesday, they discovered that while Delta allows active duty military personnel traveling on orders to check up to four bags for free if they are traveling in first/business class, the limit is only three bags for soldiers traveling in coach.

Several of the 34 soldiers who had an extra bag were forced to pay $200 of their own money in fees in order to make their connecting flight to Atlanta. They then posted a video of their experience on YouTube, which was viewed more than 200,000 times before it was removed from the site. One soldier said his fourth bag was a weapons case containing “the tools that I used to protect myself and Afghan citizens while I was deployed.”

The Defense Department usually reimburses such costs, which the soldiers may not have known, the Associated Press reports.

Former Congressman and Iraq War veteran Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., called Delta’s fee “outrageous.” “Here you have these heroes who have fought for our country overseas … to come home to the $200 charge per soldier? It’s outrageous.”

It’s not unusual for returning soldiers to check weapons on a commercial flight if the weapons have been certified as unloaded, Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Washington office, told the Associated Press.

“A $200 bill for extra baggage by a government-contracted airline is the worst welcome home any soldier could receive,” Davis said. “We know this is a business issue and that the troops will be reimbursed if they are authorized additional baggage in their orders, but the shock of even being charged is enough to make most servicemen and women simply shake their heads and wonder who or what it is they are protecting.”

In response, Delta Air Lines also apologized to the soldiers.

“First and foremost, we want you to know we’re continuing to work with the soldiers individually to make this situation right for each of them,” a company spokeswoman posted on the airline’s blog. “We regret that this experience caused these soldiers to feel anything but welcome on their return home. We honor their service and are grateful for the sacrifices of our military service members and their families.”

Several other airlines have followed Delta’s lead and also changed their checked bag policies for active duty military.