Getting screened at the airport by the
But TSA is at heart a security agency, and there’s no substitute in its screenings for some person-to-person contact—even though that’s how the novel coronavirus spreads. The TSA’s roughly 50,000 agents, working in more than 400 airports, now have to balance security concerns with infection risks in the
Earlier this month, Jay Brainard, the top TSA official in Kansas, turned whistleblower and accused the agency of not doing enough to protect employees or passengers. He said the TSA was slow to require employees to wear masks (it
Already, roughly 700 TSA employees have tested positive for Covid-19, and five had died as of mid-June, according to the agency’s website.
Among other things, Brainard criticized the agency, which is part of the
The agency said in a statement that personnel change nitrile gloves “after each pat-down,” and noted that it “developed plastic barriers for use at several locations within the checkpoint area” as a safety measure.
The coronavirus is more often transmitted between people in close physical proximity via respiratory droplets than through shared surfaces, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although both can lead to infection. “Physical distancing is incredibly important for this specific virus,” says Surili Sutaria Patel of the American Public Health Association.
Members of Congress and the
TSA officials wouldn’t directly answer whether the agency has the authority to require passengers to wear masks, or whether that should be required. The FAA said in an emailed statement that it won’t force people to wear masks, nor will it require airports to enforce social distancing.
The result is different rules from airport to airport—even within airports—and confusion over who is setting and enforcing them. “It’s like an amoeba; you can’t grab it and figure out who has what responsibility for doing what,” says
As more travelers return to airports, social distancing will be a challenge during TSA screenings, for which there is also no federal standard. The space designated for security within airports is finite. At Seattle-Tacoma, officials have roped off every other lane so passengers can spread out in the screening line. But that won’t necessarily work with larger numbers of people: The airport has a relatively small physical footprint for the number of passengers it serves, says Perry Cooper, airport media relations manager.
Meanwhile, major airlines want the TSA to expand its screenings to check for symptoms of Covid-19.
“TSA, as its name implies, is a security agency, designed to keep bad guys—bad people—off planes,” former agency Administrator
“Given that COVID-19 disproportionately affects certain demographics, any such protocols must be designed to guard against passengers from certain racial or ethnic minorities being targeted for screening in a discriminatory fashion,” Thompson wrote.
The potential for discrimination also complicates an additional strategy that could reduce overall physical interaction with passengers: risk-based screening, which focuses on high-risk passengers.
Likewise, what counts as suspicious behavior is based on an individual officer’s perception and could be affected by virus-related anxiety. “People might be nervous because it’s the first time they’ve flown since the pandemic struck, and that’s a typical ‘tell’ of a suspicious activity previously. And that, I think, is not dispositive now in this new normal,” says Pistole.
The TSA was making changes to screening procedures before the onset of the coronavirus. It had started using scanners to validate IDs and verify passenger boarding information. In some airports, passengers now hand only their ID—not their boarding pass—to an officer at the front of the checkpoint. That eliminates one touch point between passengers and workers, the agency said in a statement. As of mid-June, the agency had set up about 550 scanners, roughly 35% of the total number they’d need to use the technology at airports nationwide.
Jorhena Thomas, a national security professor at American University, says “Band Aid-type of changes” won’t be sufficient in the long term. “What they need to do is anticipate how terrorists and other people that may be a threat are going to take advantage of this current situation,” with the virus and changing procedures, “and then come up with a sustainable strategy that meets public health needs and also meets security needs,” she says.
The TSA received $100 million under the coronavirus relief package signed into law in March. It had spent less than $1 million of that as of early June, according to a senior congressional Republican aide. It hasn’t asked congressional appropriators for more resources to handle the virus.
“One of the things that we are responsible for, and that’s our primary mission, is security,” Brainard, the TSA supervisor-turned-whistleblower, says. “But now, an equal part of our responsibility is to make sure that we’re giving attention to safety.”
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