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Doing Battle with the TSA Over My Toddler’s Milk

TSA Battle Milk 3I 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?

TSA Family LaneAs 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.

TSA Battle Milk 2When 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.

TSA Airport Security

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:

  1.  Stand firm, politely.
  2. 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.
  3. Ask for a supervisor.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Have you ever had to go to battle with TSA officers over milk, juice or formula? Share your experiences in the comments.

Ever had a bad experience with airport security? The TSA can and does make mistakes, especially when it comes to travelers with kids. Learn how one frequent traveler battled the TSA successfully and how you can too.

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