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Woman with pacemaker told she had to be patted down by a male screener or miss her flight

Marion Howell, 62, has a pacemaker, so her doctor advised her to avoid security scanners. But when she arrived at Bathurst Airport in northern New Brunswick, no woman was available to conduct a physical search before Howell could get through security.

Marion Howell was told at Bathurst Airport no woman was available for security search

Security officer at an airport wears gloves and monitors travelers as they put their luggage in big plastic bins, which move down a conveyor belt.

It was supposed to be a regular trip to the airport for Marion Howell, 62, who was travelling home to Ajax, Ont., from northern New Brunswick last week.

When Howell arrived at Bathurst Airport, she felt prepared. She got there early and made sure all of her liquids were in a clear, plastic bag — just like airport security recommends.

But Howell has a heart murmur, and five years ago got a pacemaker to help regulate her heart rate. She said her doctor advised her to avoid security scanners, which could disrupt the medical device and potentially cause problems.

"I said to the guy, 'I can't go through the metal detector. I have a pacemaker. I want a woman to pat me down.'"

No women available

But, Howell said, the security screeners told her the only woman security officer in the building was not trained for a manual search. Her only option was to be patted down by a male guard or miss her flight.

According to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada website, a physical search at airport security "may also be needed if an individual has a medical condition (e.g., pacemaker) that makes using a scanner dangerous."

Dr. Satish Toal, an electrophysiologist with the New Brunswick Heart Centre, said the risks associated with security scanners are not severe with newer pacemakers. But for older devices, there's a higher likelihood of disturbance.

"Anytime two magnets are together, there would be an interaction between them and there could be an issue," he said. For security scanners, he recommends not lingering under one for longer than 30 seconds.

Howell remembers going back and forth with the security officers, pleading for a woman to search her.

"I actually ended up having an anxiety attack and crying because they were refusing to let me go through," she said.

WATCH | 'I was violated': Ontario woman shares experience at Bathurst Airport:

Ontario woman says she was denied her rights at Bathurst Airport in northeastern New Brunswick

18 hours ago

Duration 1:49

Equipped with a pacemaker, Marion Howell says Bathurst Airport didn’t accommodate her request to be patted down by female security guard.

The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, a Crown corporation, is responsible for passenger and baggage screening at airports, including Bathurst.

CATSA's website says a physical search is "always done by a screening officer of the same gender as the passenger. In exceptional situations, when a screening officer of the same gender is not available, alternative screening options will be offered."

"I know they're just doing their job," said Howell, adding that one of the officers seemed understanding of her circumstances. Another officer, however, was hostile, she said.

"He was the mean one," said Howell. "It was like they were playing a game of good cop, bad cop."

Howell said the officer began moving her belongings, which had already gone through the X-ray machine and were unattended on the other side. Luckily, Howell said, her sister was there to watch her luggage.

Toal said people with pacemakers should carry cards with them for security screenings. Howell said her card was in her luggage.

At one point, she said, she voluntarily pulled down her shirt enough to show the officers her scar. She said she had never felt pressured to do such a thing before.

As a solution, the officers said Howell's sister could watch the pat down if it made her feel more comfortable. Howell conceded but was still shaken by the interaction.

After she finally got through, airport security called her over to a place where RCMP officers were waiting. They accused her of refusing a pat down.

"No, that is incorrect," Howell recalled saying to them. "I did not refuse a pat down. I refused to be patted down by a man. There's a difference."

Howell said the officers told her she wasn't under arrest, but they took down her name and phone number. The RCMP did not respond to requests for an interview on Friday.

Eventually, Howell was able to board the plane. But once she landed, she submitted a formal complaint to CATSA.

In an email to CBC, the authority wrote that it received the complaint from Howell and said the incident is under review.

"Due to privacy regulations, we cannot speak to individual complaints," the email said.

The statement also said passengers are offered a physical search by an officer of the same gender, but "in some circumstances, such as in smaller airports, where a screening officer of the same gender may not be available, passengers can request a witness to observe the search."

Although airlines have been under-staffed since the COVID-19 pandemic, Duncan Dee, former chief operating officer of Air Canada, said the opposite is true for CATSA.

"They reported staffing numbers which exceed the staffing numbers they had pre-pandemic for fewer travellers," Dee said.

"Anyone who triggers an alarm going through the detectors at the airport has a high likelihood of requiring a physical search, and given the fact that, you know, about half of travellers could effectively be women, scheduling a woman screener at all times is a basic requirement of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority."

Katherine Ayre, an aviation liability lawyer, said that in general, attracting women to aviation has always been difficult.

Field doesn't attract many women

"There is difficulty securing women — women pilots, women mechanics, air traffic controllers, airport security," she said.

In Howell's case, security would need her consent to conduct the physical search, and it is not an invasive procedure, Ayre said.

"It is typically performed at the highest degree of professionalism, courtesy, sensitivity, and discretion."

But Dee said that the "alternative screening option" of having a witness observe the physical search was "entirely inappropriate." And Ayre noted that "every manual search must be witnessed and generally should be conducted in a private area."

Respect still required

In its email, CATSA said screening officers are expected to be treat passengers with respect and sensitivity at all times.

Dee said CATSA should not have an all-male shift of screeners "under any circumstances."

"The fact that they did not have a female screener scheduled to work during that shift is a huge contravention of their own internal procedures."

It wasn't easy for Howell to settle down after the experience.

"I was still so overwhelmed and upset and I literally had chest pain while I was going on the plane from Bathurst to Toronto," she said.


  • Correction – A previous version of the story said Howell got a pacemaker 15 years ago. In fact, Howell saw a heart specialist 15 years ago, but got a pacemaker five years ago.
    Aug 06, 2023 2:19 PM AT


Based in Toronto, Rachel DeGasperis is a 2023 CBC News Joan Donaldson Scholar. She holds a master of journalism degree from Toronto Metropolitan University and a bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Toronto. You can reach her at rachel.degasperis@cbc.ca

    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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