TSA announced today that its employees must wear facial protection while at screening checkpoints.
The decision to require TSA officers to wear facial protection will be implemented over the coming days. It is an additional measure to help minimize spread of COVID-19 and help raise the overall health and safety level inside the airport environment. Wearing protective eyewear remains voluntary by TSA personnel who are serving in an active screening position.
“TSA is making this change to protect our employees and travelers as social distancing cannot always be maintained in the screening process,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske.
Passengers are encouraged to wear facial protection and individuals may be asked to momentarily lower their facial covering for identity verification purposes, or if screening equipment alarms on it. TSA is considering further changes to its screening system to further minimize the risk and to limit physical interactions in the security checkpoint. The agency will continue to communicate any changes to the screening experience with the traveling public as these decisions are made.
TSA follows the guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding workforce protection. Travelers are reminded to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) travel and prevention guidance regaring COVID-19.
The latest measures follow the International Air Transport Assosiation’s (IATA) public support for the wearing of face coverings for passengers and masks for crew while on board aircraft. IATA calls the measure “a critical part of a layered approach to biosecurity to be implemented temporarily when people return to traveling by air”.
At the same time it issued support for wearing masks, the association said it does not support mandating social distancing measures that would leave ‘middle seats’ empty.
Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low. Contact tracing for a flight between China and the U.S. with 12 symptomatic COVID-19 passengers revealed no onboard transmission.
Meanwhile, an IATA informal survey of 18 major airlines identified, during January-March 2020, just three episodes of suspected in-flight transmission of COVID-19, all from passengers to crew. A further four episodes were reports of apparent transmission from pilot to pilot, which could have been in-flight or before/after (including layover). There were no instances of suspected passenger-to-passenger transmission.
A more detailed IATA examination of contact tracing of 1,100 passengers (also during the January to March 2020 period) who were confirmed for COVID-19 after air travel revealed no secondary transmission among the more than 100,000 passengers in the same group of flight. Just two possible cases were found amongst crew members.
Mask-wearing by passengers and crew will reduce the already low risk.
“The safety of passengers and crew is paramount. The aviation industry is working with governments to re-start flying when this can be done safely. We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable. One without the other will have no lasting benefit,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.
In addition to face coverings, IATA proposes various layers of temporary biosecurity measures:
- Temperature screening of passengers, airport workers and travelers,
- Boarding and deplaning processes that reduce contact with other passengers or crew,
- Limiting movement within the cabin during flight,
- More frequent and deeper cabin cleaning; and
- Simplified catering procedures that lower crew movement and interaction with passengers.
When proven and available at scale, IATA says testing for COVID-19 or immunity passports could also be included as temporary biosecurity measures.
Why has there not been a large number of cases of on-board transmission, and how does aviation differ from other modes of public transport?
For one thing, passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interactions and the seats provide a barrier to transmission forward to aft in the cabin. Air flow from ceiling to floor further reduces the potential for transmission forward or aft in the cabin, moreover, air flow rates are high and not conducive to droplet spread in the same way as in other indoor environments. Finally, the High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters on modern aircraft clean cabin air to operating theatre quality, further assisted by high levels of fresh air circulation.
The long-term solutions for COVID-19 depend on medical science.
“We need a vaccine, an immunity passport or an effective COVID-19 test that can be administered at scale. Work on all of these is promising. But none will be realized before we will need to re-start the industry. That’s why we must be ready with a series of proven measures, the combination of which will reduce the already low risk of inflight transmission. And we must be careful not to hard-wire any solution so we can be quick in adopting more efficient measures as they will undoubtedly become available,” said de Juniac.
This story was updated on May 8 to include the latest information from IATA.