The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has made several changes in its response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, such as increased use of contact free screening technology, enhanced cleaning and plexiglass screens. TSA also adjusted some procedures, such as asking passengers to remove more items from carry-on baggage to reduce the potential for alarms that require bag searches.
About 46,000 Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) closely interact with passengers when they screen them at U.S. airports. Part of TSA’s pandemic response included granting security officers additional paid leave, and requiring them to use surgical masks and face shields and to physically distance from coworkers and passengers. In January 2021, TSA began an employee vaccination program, and is in the process of vaccinating TSA employees.
A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says TSA could better monitor how these measures are being carried out and could identify common problems to help airports fix them.
GAO found that TSA’s monitoring and analysis of its measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is limited. For example, the watchdog reports that supervisors’ operational checklists do not specifically include the revised COVID-19 procedures, and the data that TSO monitors collect (e.g., on whether TSOs are properly wearing masks or changing gloves) reflect implementation at a point in time rather than throughout a shift.
During the review, GAO found several instances where physical distancing was not occurring and cases where TSOs were working at the side or in front of the plexiglass screens. There were also times where PPE was not used correctly. The watchdog said the use of CCTV could help to ensure COVID-19 measures were being followed.
To supplement monitoring by TSO supervisors, TSA established the Infection Control Monitor (ICM) position in June 2020 for trained TSA employees at the airport. According to TSA, Lead TSOs typically perform ICM duties. These duties include 1) providing TSA employees and passengers at the screening checkpoint with reminders about appropriate physical distancing and wearing of PPE, among other COVID-19 measures, and 2) ensuring that PPE, cleaning supplies, and staff are prepared at the beginning of every shift. ICMs are also to complete a headquarters-provided checklist at the beginning of each shift that asks them to identify and document whether each of 16 procedures identified on the checklist is being implemented correctly, and if not, to list the corrective actions taken during the shift. ICMs are then to submit completed checklist information into an electronic database each day for TSA headquarters review. However, TSA headquarters does not require security directors to assign ICMs and submit checklist data, and not all directors have done so for the airports they oversee.
TSA field leadership analyzes available monitoring data for different subsets of airports to understand how COVID-19 procedures are being implemented. But TSA headquarters officials told GAO that they had no plans at the time of the watchdog’s review to analyze this data across all airports nationwide to identify common implementation problems, such as incorrectly wearing face shields and challenges with maintaining physical distance.
Consequently, GAO is recommending that TSA take steps to strengthen monitoring of measures to reduce the spread of infectious diseases at passenger screening checkpoints, and analyze available data to identify patterns of success and failure in implementing COVID-19 measures across airports nationwide.
TSA concurred and said it will update its COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures to require the implementation of the ICM position and associated data collection. Among other things, TSA said this effort will include updates to the ICM checklist to help verify that TSOs are complying with TSA’s pandemic operating procedures, including correctly wearing personal protective equipment and social distancing between TSOs and passengers; an evaluation of data collection methods using the ICM checklist prior to system-wide implementation; and a quarterly assessment of the COVID-19 threat and whether TSA should continue or cease the ICM function. Such work would also enhance preparation for future pandemics. TSA plans to complete these activities by the end of October 2021.
With regard to GAO’s second recommendation, TSA said its Enterprise Support Office will work with the Security Operations, Performance Management Branch, to analyze available data, focusing on information captured from ICM checklists. TSA plans to complete these actions by the end of December 2021, and will use results to identify areas for improvement and best practices to reduce the spread of infectious diseases at airport checkpoints.
Between March 1, 2020 and January 31, 2021, TSA reported that 5,456 out of approximately 48,000 TSOs (more than 11 percent) were diagnosed with COVID-19. TSA cannot confirm whether TSOs contracted COVID-19 while at work, because TSA’s contact tracing process does not consider TSO activities and contacts outside of work. Moreover, TSA does not provide access to testing for its employees. However, TSA does require local TSA management to report confirmed cases of COVID-19 in their workforce. TSO infections increased as nationwide cases increased, and generally, the peaks in newly reported COVID-19 cases among TSOs are consistent with nationwide peaks in new cases on April 12, 2020, July 23, 2020, and January 11, 2021.
Federal Security Directors (FSDs), union officials, and screening contractors told GAO that they were generally satisfied with PPE changes, but expressed concerns with the availability and quality of some PPE early in the pandemic. Specifically, FSDs from six of eight of the airports GAO reviewed expressed concerns about the quality and availability of PPE, such as gloves, masks, and face shields, in the early months of the pandemic. Some contractors proactively obtained their own PPE in January 2020 before the pandemic was declared.
FSDs were largely supportive of new procedures and measures and found them to be timely and appropriate. They note concerns however about maintaining physical distancing as airports become busier. One airport operator said if physical distancing was in place with pre-pandemic traveler volumes, the line would stretch from the checkpoint to the airport parking lot.
It is worth noting that TSA is working to fast-track technology upgrades planned prior to the pandemic for technologies that may have the collateral benefit of limiting the spread of COVID-19 at checkpoints. In addition, various measures are being explored such as the use of canines to identify COVID-19 positive passengers, as has been trialed in the U.K.
Domestic passenger air travel decreased significantly in response to COVID-19, with a nearly 96 percent drop at its lowest point. But volumes have been generally increasing with the help of the progress of the nationwide vaccination roll-out, particularly at home where the U.S. boasts one of the best vaccination rates in the world. Until everyone is vaccinated however, it is crucial to maintain standards and procedures to ensure everyone can return to travel without risking the health of themselves or the TSOs who make their journeys possible.
Indeed, even if COVID-19 should disappear tomorrow, gold standard infection control procedures will inevitably be needed again as experts the world over agree that we are likely to see more pandemics in the future.