With a near complete air travel shutdown from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Transportation Security Administration has seen a huge decline in the number of people it screens. On Sunday April 12 for example, TSA screened only 90,510 people at its checkpoints, a decline of more than 96 percent from the nearly 2.5 million people it screened the same Sunday in 2019. This historic decrease in screening numbers is completely the fault of a virus which has infected many thousands of people across the country. Fortunately, it appears the security agency has developed a capable and highly flexible response to COVID-19 and its aim is to ensure both air travelers as well as its own screening officers are protected from the virus. Happily, it also recently received some help from Congress in doing so.
Congress Steps Up
Everyone likes to beat up on Congress and there’s no doubt it sometimes deserves the criticism hurled its way but regarding TSA operations during the coronavirus outbreak, the national legislature did indeed step up. For instance, Congress quickly earmarked an additional $100 million for TSA to implement increased checkpoint cleaning and sanitation at the 450 U.S. airports it helps protect. The security agency can also use the funding to help pay for overtime and travel costs required to maintain operations while any infected employees and screening officers are quarantined.
Finally, the new funds are also being used to procure additional – and often pricey — explosive detection materials which are generally multi-use in character but which must now be disposed of after just one use, all to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Agency leaders want to ensure the virus won’t be able to cross over from one flyer’s luggage to another’s if by some remote chance the first piece of luggage is indeed contaminated. TSA’s techniques actively work, then, to break what health experts call the “chain of infection.”
Personal Protection Measures
The federal security agency has also issued guidance at both local and national levels to help its screening officers and other essential employees avoid bringing the virus home with them. For example, TSA now advises its employees to remove their work uniforms or civilian attire in their garage or other private areas before entering their homes. The aim of this initiative is to cut down on the chances the virus may hitch a ride indoors on the clothing worn by TSA employees. Finally, the agency is advising its people to shower as soon as possible once they’re home and to wash their work clothes after each workday. TSA Administrator David Pekoske also discussed many of the steps his agency is taking to deal with COVID-19 in a recent response letter to Bennie Thompson, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security. It’s worth a read.
Personal Protective Equipment
TSA officers also have access to an array of personal protective equipment, or PPE, including both surgical type as well as N95 masks. TSOs have always worn gloves and constantly change them and adding masks to the mix helps to increase the odds of breaking any infection chain which might appear at a TSA location. It’s worth noting, as well, that wearing of masks is mandatory for security officers who work at airport locations in regions classified as infection “hotspots.”
For TSA document checkers at some locations (they’re the men and women who scan the tickets and identification presented by people going through checkpoints), an additional piece of protective equipment has been added: Plexiglas barriers they can stand or sit behind to help cut down on the chance of any airborne transmission from flyers to checkers and vice-versa.
Security officers working TSA checkpoints are also sanitizing after each use the plastic bins and trays people put their laptops and other personal items into prior to being screened themselves. Officers are using a variety of certified disinfectants to sanitize not only bins but they’re also regularly sanitizing security checkpoint contact surfaces. Hand sanitizer is also present in abundance at checkpoints, both for officers and people entering the screening process. TSA has also added additional precautions for its officers such as frequent hand washing. Plus, in various locations TSA also increased the scope and frequency of janitorial services at their checkpoints. In some locations the local airport authority has also done the same.
In keeping with the social distancing guidelines and mandates issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, some TSA security checkpoints now also feature distance spacing marks on floors as well as placards and signs reminding people to maintain at least six feet of separation between themselves and others.
As far as in-house training of TSA personnel goes, the agency has taken steps to ensure the chain of infection is broken and remains that way. Managers have reduced or deferred classroom training while also increasing online education opportunities via its high-tech learning center website. In cases where a classroom experience is still required, though, TSA has reduced class sizes and instituted social distance spacing rules within classrooms.
Procedurally, TSA has placed additional emphasis on the divesting process for both passengers and their carry-on luggage. These additional divestment opportunities and corresponding procedural changes are designed to reduce and minimize the amount of associated pat downs and bag searches. Security officers are now also utilizing new procedures at both personal screening points to reduce the amount of physical touching carried out by TSA officers when they screen people, something which benefits both the officer and the person being screened. Given the low number of people being screened by TSA during this COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no risk of creating any checkpoint backups from allowing double passes through metal detectors and similar screening devices.
In addition, TSA is currently allowing travelers to wear cloth face coverings as recommended by the CDC, although they will still need to verify their identity and be prepared to adjust the face covering or mask for the TSA officer during the travel document checking process.
Behind the Scenes
The Transportation Security Administration constantly assesses its screening procedures and makes modifications to them to improve not only the screening process but also how people experience their checkpoints. The federal security agency has a good history of making decisions that ensure the health and safety of its employees and the general public and they’re undoubtedly doing the same during this pandemic. These might include any number of behind-the-scenes procedural changes during this pandemic to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the screening process, though for security reasons TSA doesn’t discuss them publicly. It’s all aimed, however, at ensuring the highest degree of security with the least possible inconvenience to people going through a TSA checkpoint.
TSA is currently balancing its workforce to ensure highly efficient security operations are the order of the day while also guaranteeing they aren’t compromising the health and safety of their frontline employees such as screeners in addition to the traveling public. They’re doing this through several different staffing changes, including rotating days off and adjusting screener tour lengths that might include reducing day-on patterns and increasing day-off patterns via TSA Weather and Safety Leave provisions.
From the measures and policy changes highlighted in this article, it appears that TSA is on extremely solid ground in what it has done so far to deal with COVID-19 and in what it intends to do when it returns to screening millions of people daily. From personal observation, TSA security officers have increased their vigilance and diligence to even higher levels and all of them appear motivated to a high degree to help the country beat this pandemic and then get everyone back to work.