An Open Letter to the Canadian Air Transit Security Authority

Dear CATSA:

I would like to report an instance of serious misgovernance in the security screening at Edmonton International Airport (YEG).  Yesterday morning, I arrived at security around 8am to catch a 10am flight to Toronto.  I was returning home from a 5-day professional conference.  It was my first trip away from my 8-month-old baby, and, well in advance of the trip, I had read the CATSA’s current regulations to see if I could bring pumped breastmilk back home with me on the plane.  I was happy to see that in the past few years, your agency has updated its rule to allow parents flying with or without their children to carry more than 100ml of breastmilk, as well as gel or ice packs to store it, in their carry-on luggage provided it is presented for inspection prior to screening.  When I arrived at YEG, I was carrying a travel cooler filled with frozen breastmilk (the only way it could be stored over the period of time I was away) and gel packs.  At the head of the line, I informed the screening agent that I had breastmilk that I would like to present for separate inspection from the rest of my luggage passing through the x-ray machine.  He brought over his supervisor, who told me to put my things away and through the machine.  I repeated that I had breastmilk that I was presenting for inspection and that I did not want to pass it through the x-ray machine.  He dismissively shouted that the x-ray scanner is “fine” for whatever “gels, liquids, anything” I had, placed my bag of breastmilk on the conveyor belt, and left.

At the other end, another screening agent presented me with my bag and informed me that I had “a lot of something in here” that “could not go on the plane.”  I told him that the bag contained breastmilk and gel packs, which I had tried to present to the supervisor for inspection, and that I was permitted to bring them on the plane.  While he swabbed the bags, he told me that he didn’t think these could pass through because they were not “medicine.” I politely informed him that breastmilk was listed by the TSA as an exempt liquid along with medical liquids.  Then he told me that while the milk might be allowed, the gel packs definitely could not pass through, and again, politely but firmly, I told him that the TSA allowed gel packs to cool transported breastmilk.  He told me to wait while he asked his supervisor—I could not see if it was the same man who had dismissed me earlier—and he returned and told me that yes, the milk and the gel packs were permitted, and that next time I should present them at the head of the line so they do not have to go through the x-ray machine. 

I then decided to go to the supervisor at security and file a complaint.  My breastmilk had been unnecessarily x-rayed over my objection.  I understand that there is no known danger in feeding irradiated milk to a baby, but I am also aware that radiation compromises the nutritional value of breastmilk, and that not enough studies have been done to provide conclusive data on how altered the milk is.  In all aspects of caring for babies, Canadian public health stresses erring on the side of caution when “we don’t know the effects of that on the health of the child,” and that is exactly what I am trying to do when I try to keep my child’s food from being gratuitously irradiated. 

The supervisor I had seen earlier was not at his post, so I spoke to the woman who had replaced him.  I said I wanted to file a complaint about how the other supervisor had handled my request for inspection of my breastmilk.  She asked me what happened and while I explained the course of events, she gestured for several uniformed agents to come stand close, suggesting to me that I was on the verge of being treated as a security risk.  You may be aware that in the United States, there was a high-profile instance of a woman, Stacy Armato, being bullied by TSA agents under these very circumstances—a situation for which the TSA eventually apologized.  I was already quite upset and eager to get home to my family, and so if the intended purpose of surrounding me with agents was to pressure me not to pursue an official complaint, it worked.  The supervisor told me that there was nothing to be upset about, that people “put milk, food, all kinds of things” through the x-ray machines every day, that “no one complains” like me, and that they “are not harmful because we are family-friendly.”  I asked her if it was the official policy of CATSA to x-ray all breastmilk, and, after hedging by repeating to me that the x-rays are “fine,” she finally said that “if someone is very upset, maybe we won’t make them use the x-ray.”  I said that I had not been “upset” before, but that I had specifically requested to bypass the x-ray and proceed to manual inspection, and had been denied.  She said she didn’t know anything about that, or why the other supervisor made that decision, but that there was nothing to be done now, so I should leave.

Unable to file one then, I am filing this complaint now.  I am furious not only that my breastmilk was x-rayed over my objections, but that the supervisory staff at YEG security appears to be making up its own rules as it goes along and punishing passengers who ask them to abide by CATSA’s regulations and procedures.  In contrast, I would like to note, the security agents at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport (YYZ) were thoroughly professional.  When I presented the gel packs for inspection and explained their purpose, the supervisor there informed me that they could only be carried on board if they were being used to cool breastmilk in the bag.  They then allowed me to leave the security area to pump some milk into a bottle to place in the bag with the gel packs, and when I returned, they allowed me to proceed straight to screening, where they separated the breastmilk out from the luggage that passed through the x-ray scanner.  While this was somewhat inconvenient for me, I appreciated that they were following  to the letter the rules protecting my right to travel with breastmilk.  I would also like to note that I have no complaint against the two YEG agents at either end of security scanning, who followed protocol by taking the matter to their supervisor.  But the supervisors at YEG were dismissive and disrespectful; they appeared either not to know or not to care what the CATSA’s rules are on the inspection of breastmilk; and, while they neglect their own responsibilities in upholding proper security procedure, they presume to inform passengers of things well beyond their professional purview, such that it is “fine” to feed a baby irradiated milk.

I look forward to your clarification on how parents traveling with breastmilk should proceed at airport security so that I can avoid this situation in the future.

7 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Canadian Air Transit Security Authority

      • I certainly would resend it. I think perhaps you should also start sending it to news outlets with the information that the CATSA is not responding to your complaint.

      • I’d say you should contact your local MLA and see if they can’t get CATSA to muster some sort of response.

        Also, having been almost detained in France because of one official’s failure to recognize my student visa as a legitimate visa (twice, I might add, as she challenged it when I checked in AND when I went to board the plane), I can sympathize with your frustration at how readily people are willing to invent information as an excuse to exert arbitrary power over others–preventing these situations being the very reason why rules and protocols exist in the first place.

  1. shocking!

    I am stunned and outraged that you’ve been so mistreated! I would definitely start sending this to the media! For SHAME, CATSA!

  2. I should have posted an update a long time ago to say that a couple of months after I sent this letter, I did receive an official response from CATSA. A representative told me that they reviewed videotapes of the entire incident with the security staff — and particularly with the crew supervisor, who initially claimed not to remember me at all, but who verified my account after being shown the tapes — and, after finding that none of the staff were familiar with the official protocol for “separate screening upon request” for breastmilk, they issued a “memo” to bring the agents up to speed. I am not confident that these actions will ensure that other passengers will have a better experience trying to fly with expressed milk, but I did appreciate that my complaint was taken seriously and that I received a courteous response.

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