ACI World Issues Best Practice Guidance for Security Screening During COVID-19 Pandemic

As the COVID-19 global pandemic continues to unfold, Airports Council International (ACI) World has issued new best practice guidance on airport security screening to help protect screeners, passengers and staff while preserving security.

Last week, we reported that a number of TSA staff had tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, more Transportation Security Officers have tested positive, including several at the same airports. 

TSA’s COVID-19 web page lists locations where staff have tested positive along with their last shift dates and times.

Enhanced safety measures are therefore vital globally to contain the spread of the virus to co-workers and the traveling public.

ACI World’s Advisory Bulletin – Security screening best practices during COVID-19 – includes guidance on security checkpoint management, the screening of passengers and staff, the screening of baggage, and protection for screening staff. It also includes advice on communication of these practices to passengers.

“The safety, security and health of passengers and staff remain top priorities for airports and their partners in the aviation industry,” ACI World Director General Angela Gittens said. “It is crucial that security screening practices can be adapted to suit new circumstances, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, without affecting the overall security of the system.

“The guidance we have issued today provides airport management and staff with procedures that they can introduce that will help protect passengers as well as screening agents and other airport staff as they carry out their important functions.”

ACI World’s guidance not only includes provision of protective equipment, staff hygiene practices, and sanitization material, but also advice on queue and crowd management at the checkpoint, procedures for hand searches, and the use of explosive trace detection equipment.

The guidance published for checkpoint management is as follows:

Prior to passengers or staff approaching screening points, hand sanitizers and disinfection products should be provided. If health screening is required, non-contact thermometers should be used in a designated area prior to the checkpoint. 

It should be noted that hydrogen peroxide-based hand sanitizers may increase the likelihood of false alarms with ETD testing. 

Appropriate measures should be established with government departments when passengers show signs of illness and need to be quarantined. 

If passenger traffic permits, operate security lines that are not adjacent to each other. 

This is effective in maintaining a minimum 1.5 meter gap between checkpoints and mitigates the risk of exposure for screeners and passengers. 

Checkpoint managers, however, should be mindful that the creation of queues prior to the checkpoint should be avoided. 

Alcohol-based or hydrogen peroxide-based hand sanitizers should be distributed to staff for the cleaning and disinfection of their hands, and screening staff should wear gloves. 

At regular intervals, screening staff should conduct routine cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched/exposed surfaces and security screening equipment, including trays at the security checkpoint and baggage areas. 

Employees are encouraged to wash their hands after cleaning and after removing gloves.

For the screening of passengers and staff, the guidance states:

If agreed by local screening authorities, screeners can allow passengers or staff to keep their gloves and/or masks on during screening. 

When conducting screening using walk through metal detectors, screeners should minimize the use of hand searches. To facilitate this, screeners should reinforce communication with passengers in front of the walk-through metal detector (WTMD) or body scanner, so they have properly divested and are less likely to cause an alarm. 

For a WTMD, this includes removal of all metallic objects, for a body scanner, removal of all items from pockets or items on the body that would usually cause an alarm. 

For alarm(s) resolution, airports should opt for resolution by explosive trace detection equipment (ETD) or explosive detection dogs (EDD) instead of hand search. 

If other methods of resolution are unavailable, passengers/staff should be requested to go back and further divest objects that could be the cause of the alarms until no alarm is triggered. 

This will depend on volume of passengers – a risk assessment should be made to determine risk of creating a queue with people in close proximity versus deployment of targeted hand search. 

In the case where the people being screened still trigger alarms after further divestments, airports should opt for targeted hand search instead of a full hand search. 

When using ETD, screeners should limit their contact with the hands of people being screened. 

If the concept of operations (CONOPS) allows for the reuse of the swabs, if possible, this should be discontinued, and one swab used per person. There is some opinion that the high temperature used by ETD may be sufficient to kill a virus enabling swabs to be used multiple times. Airports should confirm with their local health authority. 

If there is a need to conduct a hand search, screeners should adapt their methodology to avoid being face-to-face with passengers or other persons being screened. 

One method is to perform the hand search while remaining behind the persons being screened. Screeners should also change gloves after each hand search.

For the screening of cabin baggage or other items carried, ACI World recommends:

For screening with ETD, the same methodology for screening passenger applies – One swab to be used per tray. 

When using explosive detection system equipment (EDS), screeners should limit the use of hand search to the strict minimum.

Where the identity of an article is unclear the baggage should be screened again by one or more of the following methods where possible:

  • X-ray equipment, whereby the same screener examines the baggage from a different angle than that used during the original screening
  • explosive detection dogs
  • explosive trace detection

In the case where hand search is still necessary, screeners should change gloves after each hand search. 

For conducting screening of liquids, aerosols and gels (LAGS), alcohol-based hand disinfectants could be exempted from screening if the airport’s regulatory body permits. 

This exemption should be granted after a visual check to determine such item is indeed a hand disinfectant. 

For screening staff safety, the ACI World guidance states:

When security inspection personnel are on duty, disposable gloves should be provided to the staff. 

If able, surgical masks, uniform caps or disposable medical caps, goggles, and protective suits, should be provided as needed. 

Attention should be paid to the following points:

  • hands should be disinfected before wearing personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • protective masks should be changed every 4 hours
  • caps should fully cover all hair, including shock hair on the hairline
  • long hair should be fastened tightly on top the head and put into the cap, and the edges of caps should fit close to the sides of ears
  • protective equipment needs to be replaced immediately when exposed to passenger’s blood, vomit and other potentially contagious body fluids
  • reusable goggles should be promptly sterilized and dried after each use
  • hands should not touch faces when taking off protective equipment, and
  • the removed disposable protective equipment should be put into medical waste bags

A method should be put in place to collect the discarded gloves (and swabs) as they may be considered hazardous material. 

For staff screening checkpoints, screeners should avoid touching others’ access control cards.

Finally, the guidance includes an example of passenger signage to promote best practice in slowing down the spread of COVID-19. The displays should be in view of all passengers approaching the checkpoint. 

“These are extraordinary times for the airport industry and the world and there is no such thing as business as usual,” Angela Gittens said.

“So, it is incumbent on us, the aviation industry, governments and our global partners to come together to protect the health of our passengers and to safeguard the future health of our vital industry.”

Read the full advisory at ACI World

This story was updated on March 24.

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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