This is Part Two of Airport Alerts. If you’d like to read part one please click here.
It’s now six years ago, this month, since my left leg was amputated below the knee. I’m a seasoned amputee flyer and, like all amputees who wear a prosthetic limb, I’m used to having a full body scan every time. I’ve always found security staff respectful, almost apologetic, when scanning me with a hand held wand, conducting a body pat–down and screening my left shoe for explosives.
Yes, I’ve used the ‘E’ word again.
I’m usually asked to take the shoe off the prosthesis and every time I explain I can’t put it back on without a shoehorn; it’s also not safe for me to remove my shoe without sitting because the foot is not flat, it’s shaped to fit my shoe height. But that’s another story.
The best experience I’ve had was at a domestic terminal in Sydney when I walked through the metal detector and found a familiar face waiting for me. A woman who’d scanned me before recognised me and come over as soon as she saw me approaching the metal detector.
When things go well, it’s simple.
What I find most distressing about being pulled aside, when I go through the metal detector, is abandoning my belongings on the conveyor belt, with swarms of people picking their things up either side. How secure will my stuff be?
So my experience flying home to Sydney through Dubai in December last year was a surprise. And not a good one.
My partner (DK) and I flew via Dubai to the UK in November and went through security screening to join our connecting flight. I was greeted by an amiable woman after I went through the metal detector in Dubai. She told me I must be screened in a private room. The rest of the procedure was familiar and straightforward.
The return journey was different.
Our departure from the UK was delayed for almost three hours. It was unanticipated. Heavy snow had deluged Britain over the previous days but Manchester was clear. We were transferring to Qantas, for Sydney, in Dubai.
When we landed there was a shemozzle—our incoming airline did not make any on-board announcements for concerned passengers about forward flights or arrangements for anyone who’d missed connections. Many were in the same boat as us; desperately searching for departure boards and, if all hope was not lost, rushing off to departure gates.
We raced, as far as my leg allowed. When we disembarked no-one had information about our Sydney connection so we searched for departure boards, scanned them, and headed for the boarding gate. It didn’t seem hopeful we’d get there in time but we decided to give it a go.
On the way we had to pass through a security check. DK was ahead of me and, as soon as he was cleared, and knowing I’d be delayed by a full security scan, he went in search of an airline information desk for directions.
When I went through the metal detector behind him I raised my usual racket. I’d already warned the person on the conveyor belt station I had a prosthetic limb. I had to say it several times, in different ways; there was a language barrier. Eventually, despairing to be understood, I said I was half legless.
After I went through the metal detector a female security officer came over to meet me; it’s a standard policy to be screened by someone of the same gender. She told me to follow her to a private room and I asked if we could do the screen outside where DK could find me and I could keep an eye on my belongings.
She refused, I protested; things didn’t start well.
The force of her insistence gave me little choice. Distressed, I followed her to a room with a high bench along one wall and otherwise empty. She told me to remove my leg so she could take it away and put it through the scanner.
I said I’d never had to take my leg off before. She insisted I take it off.
I looked around the room and started saying ‘No, because …’ and she left. If she’d let me finish my sentence I was going to say “because there’s no chair in here to sit on”.
Anxiety pressed in. I guessed we’d miss our flight by the time they took my leg away and scanned it—the procedure would render itself redundant—and I was worrying whether DK was searching for me.
Stranded, alone in a cell–like room in Dubai airport, with DK roaming around somewhere unknown to me, probably wondering where I was—and with my laptop, phone, credit cards and other belongings unsupervised at the collection point at security—I felt stressed.
I opened the door a smidgen and looked out. Coming towards me was a guy over 180cms, built like a triangle pivoting on one point, in a military looking outfit, with a gun clipped to his belt and his eyes looking straight at me. He entered, alone. I wondered whether this was counter to their customs.
“Take your leg off.”
“I’ve never had to take my leg off in an airport before. Last time I was in Dubai they just scanned me with a wand.”
“I’m telling you to take your leg off. I know what happens in Dubai and this is how we do it here.”
Triggered by his power play, my better judgement went out the closed door.
“No, I can’t.” I paused for effect. His face darkened. “Because there’s no chair.”
I accepted defeat when one was brought in—only because I didn’t want to be arrested—and reluctantly rolled my stretch cigarette pants up to the top of my left thigh in front of this man, with no female guard present, and handed my leg over.
I felt like a disabled person when it went out the door.
My fake leg must have passed muster because it was, eventually, handed back and I was allowed to go. I found DK and we walked out the way we came in, going the wrong way through security.
We knew we were stuck in Dubai; we’d missed our flight.
All I wished in that moment was to leave and never see the place again. That was not to be.