Traveling by Air with Liquid Nourishment.

I’m going to preface this post with the statement that I’ve flown a lot in the past. I’m a retired flight attendant, and have spent countless hours in the air, and quite a few accumulative hours going through security.   I’m familiar with airports, the process of going through security, and traveling by plane.

Since I received a feeding tube, I’ve not gone by air that often, at least by my definition of often.  But, I do still take a trip from time to time.

This post is written through the perspective of flying within the US (where I live).  I’ve not traveled enough internationally after having a feeding tube to have a good feel for how other countries compare with here.

Until this past trip, I’d never bothered with a letter of medical necessity from my doctor (and still didn’t this time either, but I thought about getting one).

A letter from the doctor is not required by law, and it  really proves nothing other than that a person with liquids is carrying a signed letter by a “doctor”.  How would any screener know if it was a valid letter anyway?

My reasoning for not having a letter probably boils down to some rebel at heart reasoning on my part.  It irks me to no end that I get treated with suspicion by the TSA screeners. They are carrying out their job requirements, but they’re not the boss of me (resorting to child speak to get my point across, sorry). I’m pretty certain they eat  every single day, multiple times a day , so why is it so seeming complicated for them to understand that I like to eat too?

Although I’ve yet to cave in and bring along a doctor’s note, last week I did print the “TSA Disability Notification Card” to see if this made the process of clearing screening a bit easier.

How helpful was this?

The good first:  This  didn’t seem to be the first disabilities card they’d seen, and, the whole explanation part was taken care of.  So, yes, the card helped with this.

What it didn’t help, was speeding up the process of getting my tube food screened.

What I’ve found is there is a pretty wide variance in what a tube feeding person is going to run up against, depending on the airport they are departing from.  Reagan National (DCA)  which is my home airport,  has been one of the easiest, and for that I’m thankful.

Newark International (EWR) which is the airport I was based out of for so many years, can be just abysmal. Of course, it can be abysmal anyway, regardless of a traveler’s disability or lack there of.


My last security passage through Newark took over an hour, including a medium wait in line first.  The pat down (which  was uncomfortably thorough) was not performed until after they tested all of my tube feeding supplies for traces of explosives, and this part of the screening was not started immediately after I walked through the metal detector.   I had to stand around and wait (and wait some more) until they decided to screen my food.

I am not able to check my bags when I fly on a standby retiree pass, which is how I usually travel.  Sending most of my tube food in checked baggage would have sped up the process tremendously, and believe me, if I’d had that option, I would have taken it.

For any tube feeding liquids you are going to carry on with you,  I would strongly urge you to have them  all together in one bag, with nothing else in that bag.  AT ALL!

I (logically, I thought at the time of packing)  had put my empty bottles, wipe up cloths, feeding extension sets,  all nice and organized into a bag that contained my food. Baaaad idea.

Once the TSA has the bag in their possession, the owner of the bag is no longer allowed to touch it,   If you even make a slight reach for it, it will elicit a strong warning from the TSA screener to “stand back!”   And, they handle everything.  And, after wiping it to test for chemicals,  they lay each item down on the  countertop, so that the tips of my extension set were touching god only knows how many germs.  Would they do that with a baby bottle?  I hope not, but who knows.   Even though it would not have been as convenient for me if I’d just kept all of my actual meal process supplies separate from the food, it would have been a quicker, less stressful procedure when in the possession of the TSA at the security checkpoint .

I had more food in my larger rollaboard bag, and, this food was all together, closed up in a large ziptop storage plastic bag.  You would think that was separate enough, right? Oh no, now the entire inside of my rollaboard bag had to be tested as well. This only happened in Newark, but no guarantees that it wouldn’t happen to you at any airport.

All of my food this past trip was in  unopened sealed foil pouches, and unopened, still sealed bottles of meal replacement shakes.  But, in the past I’ve gone through with a container holding Starbucks coffee that had my morning protein shake mixed in, and the screener actually opened up the bottle and waved a swab over the opening.  It was all I could do to keep from snatching it from her! (Don’t mess with my coffee–especially before 9 am!!!) Therefore, my advice to you, is:

  • Allow lots of extra time.
  • When passing through security, and really,  in all interaction with airport and airline staff,  be pleasant and patient.  An entitled attitude doesn’t get one very far.
  •  Keep your liquid nourishment completely separate from anything else you’re bringing on board with you.  Don’t pack any other paraphernalia in with the liquids.
  • Keep in mind that if you have something that is homemade or not sealed, they may open it to test the vapors arising from the contents.
  • Check your blends or formula in baggage if possible (or have it shipped to your destination before you leave for your trip).
  • Print the TSA disabilities card. It really did seem to help the screeners understand why and what I had with me.  But know it won’t make the testing commence  any faster. They will get around to it when they’re ready.
  • When you fill out the TSA disabilities card, put your information in as simple of language as possible.  Do not expect the TSA employee to know what a medical term for your condition or disease is,  or the implications of it for you.  It doesn’t matter (for this purpose) if you need a feeding tube because you are a cancer survivor, a person with ALS, a person with gastroparesis, or whatever.
  • If you have someone traveling with you that can help gather your other belongings up, after these items have made it through the x-ray scanner, it will make it easier on you.  If your companion decides this is a good time to go do _____ (fill in the blank), suggest they  take your cleared items with them, especially laptop and other valuables (and your winter coat if its  sweltering inside the airport and you’re stuck holding it while you wait).

Once you’re in the airport, make sure you stay hydrated while waiting for your flight, as well as in the air.  Celebrate making it into the airport by pouring in some water, or other hydrating liquid.



3 Responses to "Traveling by Air with Liquid Nourishment."

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  1. Pingback: Traveling by air with meals for the tube - ALS/MND Support Group Forums

  2. Adele

    January 8, 2017 at 1:39 am

    My father who is a tube feeder had the same experience where he was stopped by one of the Intl Airport security officer asking him to pour out his formula for testing before allowing him to pass through. That incident had caused many people surrounding him and he felt so upset. Since then he had stopped traveling.

    Despite showing the officer the doctor’s letter, the officer was still unable to understand what is tube feeding.

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