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The Ultimate Guide to Flying with TPN Series Part 3: What Happens at the Airport?

It’s the big day! You’ve planned, you’ve prepped, and you’ve packed and now it’s time for your trip to begin. 

Special assistance

When I arrive at the airport the first place I head to is curbside check in. I take my 2 carry-on suitcases onto the plane with me but I also have another suitcase that contains my clothes and all of my other non-medical things and I always check it at the curb so that it’s one less piece of luggage to handle. Feeling lighter already!

If you’ve arranged for a wheelchair you can let the clerk know that you have wheelchair service set up and they will call someone to get you and take you to your gate. If you did not set up wheelchair service ahead of time but need one that’s OK. Just let them know you will need a wheelchair and they will take care of the rest. 

Once you’re inside the airport you will see an area to wait at but if you don’t see it you can always ask. You will sit here until someone arrives for you with a chair. 

Each airport differs a bit but some of them allow a travel companion to push you to your gate. Dan and I do this at O’Hare. We grab a wheelchair from where they are kept and he pushes me through security and to our gate so we don’t have to wait for someone. Most airports have special lines for wheelchair users. Check to see if that is the case at your airport because those lines tend to be much shorter. You can learn more about the help available to you at the airport and how to set everything up before your trip in this post.

To Check or not to check?

In my opinion you should bring all of your TPN and medical supplies onto the plane with you so they don’t get lost or damaged. You will not be charged extra for medical supplies but you’ll have to pack them in coolers or suitcases that are small enough to stow in the plane. Sometimes it isn’t possible to store it in the overhead compartments if the plane is small but you can talk to a flight attendant when you are boarding and explain what you have with you and they can figure out the safest place for your stuff. 

If you decide to check your TPN do not arrive with containers that are sealed shut because they will have to open them to make sure what you have with you is safe. You can always ask them to tape up boxes after they do this. Another thing to consider if you are checking TPN is that you should label it with stickers that say: medical supplies, must be refrigerated, and handle with care.

Going through Security

Every single one of my trips has been a little different when it comes to what happens at the airport. Each one has their own system of doing things but even at the same airport I’ve had totally different experiences.

If you had wheelchair assistance you probably got to skip the long security lines because that it how it goes at most airports since they are busy and need to get people where they need to be quickly and then help the next person. That is one bonus of having that set up but it doesn’t happen at every airport. 

It can be frustrating but I find it very helpful to approach it with a positive attitude and go into it knowing that it’s all part of life with a health condition and TPN. I also make sure I am kind to everyone even if they are not being kind to me because sometimes it helps turn their attitude around. Overall almost all of my experiences at the airport with TPN have been positive. 

Your Luggage

If you’re not comfortable talking about your situation or if you have any concerns about traveling I recommend contacting TSA cares before your trip or using one of their cards that are designed to disclose your situation if you’d like help making the security process easier. Since you are traveling with things that will get flagged they will need to put you through a more rigorous process than what is standard.

When I approach the belt that my luggage will go on I try to catch the eye of the person working that station to let them know that I have luggage that will flag them and it’s medical supplies. Making this contact before I even walk through the scanner helps because they will know whose luggage it belongs to and they will set it aside and come talk to you when they’re ready to go through it. 

Once someone is ready to go through your luggage you have the right to observe that happening. Don’t be afraid to ask them to put on a new pair of gloves and explain to them that intravenous medicines absolutely must stay sterile. 

Sometimes they will go through everything quickly but I’ve also had instances where they have pulled each and every item out of my luggage, swabbed it, and so forth. It’s kind of ridiculous but I do understand why it happens. If you happen to get a line where someone is being trained be prepared for it to take awhile.

Speaking clearly and with confidence about your situation helps them have confidence in you and moves things along nicely. I’ve never been asked to provide any documentation but I do travel with a doctors note and my TPN prescription just-in-case. Usually they will swab the insides of your luggage and carefully look through it and that’s it.

Your Body

Now let’s talk about what happens to you. You can expect a pat down at the least but they may put you through a little more than that although it’s not common.

My port always flags when I walk through the scanner. They have me touch it with both hands and then they swab my hands for dangerous matter. If you are connected to your pump and infusing it is safe to walk through the scanner but you can ask for a different method. You will need to tell them your backpack has a pump in it that you can’t disconnect from. 

Following that it’s time for the pat down. You can have this done in a private area if you prefer but I don’t mind them doing it right then and there because I just want to get it over with and be on my way. You’ll stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your arms out to the side. They will use the back of their hands and quickly sweep up and down each limb and the back and front of your body. Before they do this they should ask you if there are any areas on your body that hurt or they should be aware of. If you have an ostomy or anything you’re worried about them touching now is the time to disclose that.

My worst experience with airport security was having someone be so meticulous that I had to remove my shoes and go through a pat down twice by two different people; once before they looked at my luggage and once after. They also looked through my backpack and everything we had with us and not just the two suitcases with my TPN and medical supplies. They swabbed everything and the whole thing just took a lot longer

than it usually does. But hey, if that’s my worst experience I have nothing to complain about.

At the Gate

At your gate you can check with the attendant that you have preboarding if you set that up. If you had wheelchair service it’s standard to also have preboarding though this might vary by airline. Once they announce that it’s time to board the plane you can line up with the other passengers who are preboarding. 

On the plane

Once I’m in my seat I sanitize it. I make sure to focus on the seatbelt, arm rests, and tray table since those are touched the most by passengers. 

Flying can be dehydrating so if you tolerate liquids I find it helpful to pack an oral rehydration solution to drink on the airplane. When you arrive at your destination there will be someone with a wheelchair waiting for you if you had requested wheelchair service. That’s pretty much it when it comes to what happens at the airport when flying with TPN. 

At the Airport on Your Way Home

Since the ice packs I use are reusable they have to come home with me but if you put them in a carry-on they are going to get flagged at security. Since my TPN was used up throughout my trip I don’t fly home with any therefore I don’t need to use the ice packs. 

For this reason I put them in the luggage that gets checked for the way home and that way I can get through security a lot faster when returning because I won’t have anything in my carry-on luggage that will get flagged.


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