Things are changing for travelers. It used to be that passing through TSA checkpoints was as simple as removing shoes, belts, liquids, laptops, food, cell phones, batteries; the list goes on and on. With Covid-19 showing no signs of disappearing, elected officials are attempting to enforce enhanced health screenings on top of the tight security we are all used to.
This September, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate by Senators Cantwell and Scott to make temperature screenings at existing TSA checkpoints mandatory in the near future.
Current Safety Measures at US Airports
If you have traveled during Covid, you may have noticed that the current safety measures in place to protect travelers from the coronavirus are more guidelines than rules, and are often sparingly enforced. There is also the matter of different rules for different airlines, let alone variations from airport to airport.
JetBlue and Delta are blocking middle seats, while United and American Airlines are not. Frontier cleans their aircraft thoroughly before every flight, while Spirit does not. All airlines require masks, while not all make them available to passengers. Some board from the back of the plane, others follow regular boarding processes.
Every airline, and every airport, has its own rules. Or, more accurately, every airport has its own way of applying them.
When it comes to the omnipresent (and omniscient) TSA, there are some basic safety measures in place across the entire US. TSA officers are required to wear face coverings and gloves, and some will stand or sit behind plastic shielding. TSA officers are also instructed to change their gloves between pat-downs or at the request of a passenger. Equipment and bins are cleaned more frequently and 12 oz. hand sanitizer containers are now allowed in carry-on bags, as compared to the regular 3.4 oz liquid limit per container.
On top of TSA guidelines, travelers are encouraged to maintain a distance of six feet from one another (social distancing) and reduce physical contact between themselves and TSA agents by holding up their IDs and placing boarding passes on readers themselves.
Some airports will ask you to fill out a health questionnaire upon arrival, others will not. So, it’s fair to say that it’s all kind of messy and inconsistent.
What the New Bill Proposes
The new legislation, dubbed the Fly Safe and Healthy Act of 2020 (S. 4623), is attempting to bridge a health gap in the nation’s airports. The bill calls for a pilot project which will introduce temperature scanning technology and thermal imaging into the safety screening process at every airport.
One of the co-sponsors of the bipartisan bill, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), has released a set of Q&As on her website (which you can read here) that attempt to clarify some of the legalese inside of the bill.
Fundamentally, the TSA will have oversight over the testing of different temp-check technologies that will aim to be as unobstructive as possible to travelers while weeding out anyone with a fever. The TSA will also be responsible for maintaining the privacy and medical information of everyone who passes through the screening.
If someone is found to have an elevated fever, they will be removed for additional health screenings and to determine whether the fever is caused by the coronavirus. Anyone with a fever will not be able to board a flight, for which the legislation suggests airlines will either reimburse or reschedule the passengers.
Will Thermal Imaging Cameras Actually Work?
There has been some success with these types of cameras in the past, particularly in South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in previous fights against SARS and MERS. However, there are some issues with the tech.
For example, even the Q&A document provided by Senator Cantwell suggests that passengers who take a fever reducer such as Advil or Tylenol might be able to bypass the system. Additionally, there is no specific guidance regarding accommodations for religious reasons or for those with disabilities, the onus of which will be on the program’s administrator.
If the bill passes, this will be the first formal federal requirement regarding health and safety in the Covid era. At $60 million, this test’s first priority will be to discourage those who are sick to arrive at the airport, and then to prevent those who have fevers from entering sterile areas of the nation’s airports.
In all, it remains to be seen whether this legislation will pass and how the program’s administrator will apply its guidelines. However, one thing is for sure: we can expect to see more of these types of bills in the future, as long as the coronavirus persists.