The COVID-19 global pandemic had a significant impact on travel. Transportation providers and operators, regions and countries are still getting to grips with their “new normal” and trying to find a balance between public health measures and enabling the growing number of travelers to go about their lives.
Only last week, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) erred on the side of caution and extended its face mask mandate. Travel industry associations had hoped the mandate would end on March 18 but it has instead been extended for a further month until April 18.
But travel has come a long way from the early protections put in place at the emergence of the virus. Starting in January 2020, presidential executive actions imposed restrictions on international air travel to the U.S. from certain countries and mandated that face masks be worn on transportation systems, due to COVID-19. TSA issued security directives to operators of transportation systems to implement these executive actions.
A new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says TSA expedited coordination with external stakeholders to develop and issue these directives, which included passenger and medical screening, international arrival restrictions, vaccine requirements, and mask mandates. According to TSA officials, development of security directives can take up to several months. However, the executive actions typically gave TSA less than a week to issue the COVID-19 security directives due to the urgent nature of the pandemic.
Overall GAO found that while selected external stakeholders raised several issues with the security directives, they stated that TSA’s expedited coordination was generally effective.
Industry stakeholders GAO spoke with stated that TSA coordinated positively and effectively overall when issuing the COVID-19-related security directives. Specifically, TSA officials reached out to industry stakeholders or entities that TSA has regulatory authority over, including airlines, airports, and surface transportation operators. This outreach occurred through a series of conference calls and emails between TSA and the stakeholders. Through these calls and emails, TSA provided draft language in the directive for stakeholders to comment on and received responses from the stakeholders on concerns they had on the draft language.
With regard to coordinating with surface transportation stakeholders for the face mask security directives, GAO found that TSA reached out to regulated parties and their industry representatives, such as associations that represent specific types of transportation operators. Surface transportation operators told us that they provided any comments they had to industry associations that represent operators, such as the American Public Transportation Association, which helped coordinate and consolidate operator input and comments before providing the input and comments to TSA headquarters officials. Some operators told GAO that they also worked closely with local or regional TSA officials to obtain clarification about how to implement the directives. For example, one stakeholder stated that they had questions about exactly when they should remove passengers who refused to comply with the face mask security directives and took those questions to the TSA regional security director for their region who helped clarify what the expectations were for the stakeholder.
TSA also reached out to labor associations on the security directives after they were developed. According to TSA officials, in January 2021, they engaged labor associations and law enforcement partners to provide information on the face mask security directives.
As with the industry stakeholders, interagency stakeholders similarly reported timely and effective coordination by TSA during development of the security directives. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Transportation, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection all stated that TSA coordinated quickly and effectively with their agencies to ensure that their expertise and equities were considered and reflected in the security directives. This coordination happened through interagency forums such as the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, interagency conference calls, and by inviting other federal agencies to review and comment on draft security directives before they were finalized.
GAO’s review found that TSA took steps to ensure operator implementation of its security directives and, in addition to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), has investigated incidents of or related to non-masked passengers. For example, TSA conducts in-person inspections of air carriers’ pre-boarding procedures for U.S.-bound flights to confirm that they are following the directives restricting travel from certain countries. It also conducts investigations into incidents reported by transportation operators of passengers who refuse to comply with the face mask security directives and become disruptive or aggressive towards an operator or others. Of the over 3,800 incidents investigated from February 2021—when the face mask security directive was implemented—to March 2022, TSA issued more than 2,700 warning notices and over 900 civil penalties against passengers. Separately, the FAA investigates incidents of unruly passengers who interfere with crew members in their duties, including times when they have been asked to comply with the face mask security directive.
For the security directives restricting international air travel, TSA incorporated steps into existing in-person inspections of air carrier operations for flights to the U.S. from foreign airports. TSA officials told GAO that since the first security directives restricting international air travel went into effect in February 2020, a total of 198 carrier inspections had been completed as of September 2021. Of those inspections, six identified what TSA officials described as minor deficiencies specific to the COVID-19 security directives, such as carrier personnel not asking the correct questions of passengers to determine recent travel histories. In those instances, TSA officials reported that TSA inspectors provided on-the-spot corrective counseling to the personnel.
Customer-facing aviation staff face challenges when enforcing security directives, particularly mask-wearing. A number of steps have been taken to help protect employees, including the restarting of TSA’s voluntary self-defense training course. As of October 2021, an additional 400 air carrier crew members had completed the training.