I approached the TSA checkpoint in Charlotte International Airport yesterday just like I did on any other flight day with kids. After flying north of 120 flights with at least one kid in tow, I’ve pretty much mastered airport security lines even with a toddler and 7 year old traveling with me.
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But each TSA experience means the potential for a serious curveball. If you fly as much as I do, you’ve probably also seen your share of TSA ridiculousness. Over the years, I’ve been fed some serious misinformation from TSA officers, especially when it comes to the special rules that apply to flying with kids like bringing milk for babies and toddlers. Usually larger airports mean better experiences, as TSA officers have often seen a wide variety of situations and can handle idiosyncrasies. My home airports of SFO and OAK are easy every time, and I expected the same of CLT. Boy, was I wrong!
My trip through the Charlotte airport security line turned out to be one of those very unlucky TSA showdown days. I fought the law. And knowing me, I bet you can guess who won. So, what happened?
As I often do on cross country flights with my 2.5 year old toddler, I packed two shelf stable milk cartons (8 ounces each) in my carryon bag. We had an 8 hour trip including a short connection in the busy Dulles airport ahead of us. My son still gets a lot of comfort out of a sippy cup full of milk when he is tired, so I knew we’d need milk on our long journey. After meticulously researching TSA liquid rules for travelers with kids years ago (and continuing to refer to them because of this blog), I knew the milk was allowed due to the liquid exemptions that apply to travelers with young children. I also have taken the exact same milk through dozens of US airports and have never yet had it confiscated. Sometimes keeping it requires additional screening and I was prepared for that if need be.
When I got to CLT, I was relieved to see signs that the airport used the advanced liquid scanning machines. This at least meant I wouldn’t be fed the line that TSA needed to open (thereby spoiling) the milk to test it for explosives. I get that sometimes. Often when that is demanded, it means a full body pat down is required to walk away with the milks unscathed and unopened.
My toddler’s 2 milks were pulled aside for special screening and put through the liquid tester. So far so good. Then the TSO told me I had to surrender them. She said they simply weren’t allowed. I told her (and showed her) my toddler. I explained that he was 2 and we had a cross-country flight and fresh milk would spoil during the length of time we would be in transit.
She insisted that the liquid exemptions only applied to “little, little babies.” I insisted that they did not. I told her I’d flown with these same milk cartons dozens of times. She held firm.
I then told her that I would pull up a copy of the TSA rules in my phone to show her that my toddler was entitled to liquid exemptions for milk and juice. She copped an attitude and told me “I’m the one who works for TSA so I’m the one who knows the rules.” I asked for a supervisor. After some delay, either a colleague or a supervisor sauntered over – prepared to back her up until showed him language on the TSA’s website indicating that the liquid exemptions for milk and juice indeed applied to “infants or toddlers.” And if a 2 year old isn’t a toddler, I don’t know what is.
He took my milks, examined them closely and finally handed them to me without a word. No apology. No acknowledgement that I was in the right. And certainly no assurance that the staff understood the actual rules and would let other moms through with this totally permitted milk in the future. I made a stink, so an “exception” was reluctantly made for me.
Flying with kids is hard enough but there’s really no excuse for TSA officials to make it harder – especially when they are utterly and completely in the wrong. Had I not been a frequent traveler with intimate knowledge of the rules and a lot of persistence and awareness of what to do, my milk would have been long gone. To other family travelers out there, all I can say is that you have to be equally prepared and persistent on the face of TSA incompetence.
Here’s what to do if you are given erroneous instructions on your next trip through airport security with kids:
- Stand firm, politely.
- Have a copy of the rules (printed or bookmarked on your phone). I often refer to the section about flying with children because the liquid exemptions are the most often misunderstood and misinterpreted.
- Ask for a supervisor.
- Ask if a pat down is an alternative. Somehow, subjecting yourself to the TSA’s super-fun full body pat down seems to be the cure for 90% of impasses with TSA officers. Totally illogical, but I do what I gotta do to get through. But only as a last resort.
- Complain later. If all else fails, file a formal complaint on TSA’s website. I tweeted @tsa at the time of the incident and will also be submitting a complaint.
No @TSA officers at #CLT– liquid exemptions do not apply only to newborn. Had to show copy of rules to keep milk for 2 yr old. Not ok #TMOM
— Leslie Harvey (@TripsWithTykes) July 31, 2016
Have you ever had to go to battle with TSA officers over milk, juice or formula? Share your experiences in the comments.
Saturday 25th of June 2022
The language on the TSA website now reads "Formula, breast milk, juice in quantities greater than 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters are allowed in carry-on baggage and do not need to fit within a quart-sized bag. Remove these items from your carry-on bag to be screened separately from the rest of your belongings. You do not need to travel with your child to bring breast milk. Breast milk and formula are considered medically necessary liquids. This also applies to breast milk pumping equipment (regardless of presence of breast milk)."
Was this the case back when you were flying? If not, would whole milk still be considered allowable? Worried about flying in a few days with my 1yo who drinks whole milk now since my supply plummeted.
Friday 15th of November 2019
Update: After filling two bottles full of whole milk, I threw my diaper bag into the back of our lyft and all the milk spilled. So I didn't have a chance to find out if TSA would allow it. On the plus side I bought a 16 ounce cold whole milk from Starbucks for 3.50. So it's not really worth it for me to try bringing it through with a 6 hour flight. It will stay come enough in my cold bag.
Friday 15th of November 2019
This is really disheartening. I flew on a6. 5 hour flight least week and went to every store in the airport looking for whole milk. I only found 2 percent, this was at SeaTac. So, running out of time I decided I would try to buy some at Starbucks. But the line was insane and I had run out of time. So I walked up to the creamer container and filled my bottle. Was it the right thing to do? For me at the time yes. Would I do it again? Probably not. Next time I would stand on line right away to buy some. Today we are flying back out of Honolulu and I will attempt to bring two 8 ounce bottles of milk through TSA. I'm hoping for the best but after reading all of these stories, I'm prepared for the worst. My LO is 19 months and in feeding therapy. He still drinks about 20 ounces of milk a day.
Sunday 29th of April 2018
Great article!!! I will follow your advices. I am traveling with my toddler in 3 days. She drinks 4-5 bottles of milk a day, mainly when going to bed. So milk is a must.
I want to tell you my horror story that happened last year. We were traveling from Kansas to Florida. My daughter was 15 months old. I filled 3 glass bottles with whole milk. I had some dry powdered formula as well (I wish she still liked it). So, at the TSA they asked me for additional screening. No problem, I was prepared.
They scanned my bottles. Then said, it tests positive for EXPLOSIVES. They pattered me of course. And then they themselves called the supervisor. We had to wait for him with a screaming baby for 15 min. The rude guy arrived and without even talking to me scanned my bottles with some sophisticates handheld machine. They again said it was explosive positive. Oh my, I almost lost it saying that their equipment is lying and that me or my baby can drink out of my three bottles right away. They said I had NO RIGHT to touch the bottles. My husband suggested to through the milk away together with bottles but I did not want to give up my beautiful glass bottles - plus I simply needed them during the flight. My husband suggested to empty the bottles, but they said too late. And even if it was possible, after doing that WE HAD TO START THE LINE from the beginning. Darn.
I did not want to give up. I was right! So, then they said that there was the only one alternative left is to test the liquide inside - but their machine was broken. (Why not doing it from the beginning?) So after 20 more minutes of waiting for a new machine and testing the milk, yes it was all good.
And you know what the RUDE supervisor then explained to me? He said that GLASS BOTTLES bounce back the laser ray of light - meaning their machine is NOT CAPABLE TO DEAL WITH GLASS BOTTLES - and if the test fails it flags EXPLOSIVE!
This is my story. They took my 45 min or so and good I had extra time.
Good luck to all!
Monday 22nd of January 2018
I was returning home to DC from Miami with 3 1/2 year old toddler. I am very familiar with the rules with milk, I always put it in a separate small cooler bag to make it easy for the TSA to screen. They usually do a pat down when I bring milk with me which I am totally fine with. This time at Miami International Airport a Supervisor said “nope” that I could not bring milk into the flight. I told how is it that I have been through several airports and this is the first time it was a problem. According to her the cutoff age is 2 years old, I asked her to show me where it states 2 years is the cutoff. At this time another TSA agent told me they don’t need to show me anything. After a very heated argument I had to leave the milk. My son was very upset and kept asking me why those people stole our milk.