Traveling by air with diabetes implies going through airport security screenings with all your medical supplies. Flying with an insulin pump is quite common, and TSA agents are aware of your rights as a diabetic traveler.
Before departure, you’re recommended (but not compelled) to fill out a TSA notification card for individuals with disabilities and medical conditions, specifying you have diabetes, and wear an insulin pump.
But let's delve a bit further into the topic and see exactly what the situation is regarding insulin pumps at the airport.
TSA's airport security screenings machines
Let's clear some terminology first, so we all know what we're talking about. In most airports, there are three types of screening machines likely to inspect your insulin pumps. The ones used for the luggage and your backup insulin pump (x-ray machines), and the ones scanning your and the insulin pump you're wearing on you (metal detector and full-body scanners).
Baggage X-ray machines
X-ray machines are the ones you put your carry-on in at the airport security screenings. They're also used to inspect your checked luggage before they go into the hold. X-rays are electromagnetic waves that penetrate different materials at different levels to deliver a display of the items in your luggage.
The use of X-ray scanners for people is becoming much less frequent than before, so it should not concern the insulin pump you're wearing. However, if you're carrying a backup insulin pump in your carry-on bag or checked luggage, be sure it's safe if exposed to x-ray (most insulin pumps are not!).
Walk-through metal detectors and hand-held detection wands
The walk-through metal detectors are the arches you go through at security checkpoints. They beep if you have any metallic items on you. Neither the hand-held nor the walk-through metal detectors emit radiations like an x-ray machine. Instead, they use an electromagnetic field (EMF) to detect metal only. Most manufacturers agree that these small interferences should not affect your insulin pump.
360 Full-body scanners
More and more airports are now equipped with full-body scanners. These are the machines you go into, and that scan your body for a few seconds. They use the Millimeter Wave technology and emit non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation (x-ray). Some insulin pump manufacturers recommend their pump not to go through full-body scanners.
4AllFamily's insulin coolers are all TSA-approved, so you can keep your insulin cool while traveling!
Insulin pumps' manufacturers' recommendations regarding x-ray and metal detectors
Now let’s see what the manufacturers of the 5 most sold insulin pumps say about their devices’ resistance to electromagnetic interferences coming from airport x-ray machines, metal detectors, and 360 full-body scanners.
Medtronic insulin pump at airport security
Medtronic is one of the leading insulin pump companies. According to its website, both the MiniMed 670G and MiniMed 630G can resist common electromagnetic interferences. However, it expressively states that the pumps should not go through x-ray machines used for luggage nor full-body scanners. You should require a pat-down search instead. If you choose to go through the full-body scanner, you must disconnect and remove your insulin pump first.
When you buy a Medtronic insulin pump, it comes with an airport information card that's helpful to carry for security screenings. If you've lost it, you can download the airport information cards for both the MiniMed 670G and the MiniMed 630G online.
Omnipod and airport security checks
Flying with insulin pumps from Omnipod seems to be a bit easier. According to Omnipod, both its insulin pump (Pod) and its remote controller called the Personal Diabetes Manager (PDM) can safely go through airport X-ray machines, metal detectors arches, and 360 full-body scanners!
The manufacturer only warns its users that the insulin pump and the personal diabetes manager connect via Bluetooth wireless technology. While on the plane, ask the airline workers about the policy regarding electronic devices and Bluetooth.
Tandem Insulin Pump at airport screenings
Your Tandem insulin pump can safely be carried through a metal detector. However, your pump should neither go through x-ray machines nor full-body scanners. Tandem puts at your disposal a printable note for flying with your pump to show the TSA agents and to require a pat-down search instead.
Accu-Check Combo at the airport
Accu-check insulin pumps can go through metal detectors but should be taken through neither x-ray baggage machines nor full-body scanners.
However, the manufacturer Roche Diabetes is quite reassuring in case it happens: “Due to the design, there is no risk for the user to wear the Accu-check Spirit Combo pump in an area with those static fields. If a magnetic disturbance occurs, the pump will alarm the user with an auditory and tactile warning (…) and display an “E7” electronic error message”. In that case, the pump will immediately stop delivering insulin until you start it again.
Animas Insulin Pump, x-rays, and metal detectors
Animas has discontinued the sale of its insulin pumps, Animas Vibe and OneTouch Ping, in the USA and Canada. If you're still using your old Animas insulin pump, know that it must not be taken through x-ray machines nor full-body scanners. The manufacturer did not mention anything about metal detectors.
What TSA itself says about insulin pumps at the airport
The USA Transport and Security Administration, whose agents are conducting airport screenings, is well aware of the situation for diabetics wearing insulin pumps.
It states on its official website that insulin pumps are allowed both in checked bags and in carry-ons, adding that: “Insulin pumps and supplies must be accompanied by insulin”.
Plus, TSA’s special procedures for people wearing insulin pumps and glucose meters clarify that passengers with insulin pumps have the right to request a pat-down in lieu of screening by technology. It clearly states that: “You will not be required to remove the portable infusion pumps attached to your body”.
To know more about TSA regulations for diabetic travelers, read our series of 25 questions & answers on the topic!
Should you disconnect your insulin pump for TSA screenings?
It depends. As said before, TSA agents can force you neither to remove your insulin pump nor to take it through technology screening machines against your will.
If you request a pat-down search, you do not need to remove your insulin pump. The security agent can inspect your pump with a hand-held detection wand.
If you choose to go through a full-body scanner anyway, you should remove your insulin pump, so it does not get damaged by x-rays. In that case, disconnect your pump, remove it, and connect it back after you've cleared all security controls.
Should you disconnect your insulin pump during the flight?
Atmospheric pressure changes during take-off and landing can create air bubbles that cause unintended insulin delivery in pumps.
To avoid this situation that would lead to severe and repeated hypoglycaemic episodes during the flight, it's recommended to disconnect your pump before takeoff and landing. Once at cruising altitude, prime to remove any air bubbles from the tubbing before reconnecting. You should follow the same procedure for landing. Disconnect your insulin pump when the plane starts to descend. Once landed, prime and reconnect.
To go further: Changes in altitude cause unintended insulin delivery from insulin pumps, a study conducted by Bruce R. King, published in Diabetes Care Journals, 2011.
We wish you safe flights and happy travels! We’d be happy to hear about your own experiences in the comments below.