Travelers would have temperatures checked at about a dozen airports under plans that are still under discussion.
U.S. officials are preparing to begin checking passengers’ temperatures at roughly a dozen airports as soon as next week, as the coronavirus pandemic has heightened travel anxieties, according to people familiar with the matter.
Details of the plan are under review by the White House and are subject to change, the people said. It couldn’t be determined which airports will initially have the new scanning procedures. A senior Trump administration official said the initial rollout is expected to cost less than $20 million, and that passengers won’t be charged an additional fee.
Airlines have been pushing for the Transportation Security Administration to start taking passengers’ temperatures as part of a multifaceted effort to keep potentially sick people from boarding planes and to make passengers feel more comfortable taking trips again. Demand for air travel has dropped more than 90% amid transport restrictions and stay-at-home orders.
People familiar with the matter said the TSA has raised concerns about taking on responsibility for temperature scanning, believing it doesn’t fall within the scope of its security mission. Its employees also have been exposed: Over 500 have tested positive for Covid-19 and six have died.
“At this time, no decision has been made regarding specific health screening measures at airports,” the TSA said Friday.
The spread of the coronavirus has crushed air travel, with airlines describing the crisis as the worst they have faced in decades. More than half of U.S. passenger planes have been grounded, according to industry group Airlines for America. Carriers have slashed schedules by as much as 90% in some cases, and most flights are far from full. Even with $50 billion in government aid, airlines have warned they are rapidly burning through cash as demand remains anemic.
The scanners used to take passenger temperatures would likely be a mix of tripods that can scan multiple people at once and hand-held thermal devices, the administration official said. Passengers with a temperature reading of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher would be flagged. Officials haven’t yet decided whether the scanning will take place at the start of the security process or toward the end.
Democrats in Congress have for weeks raised questions about whether the administration has authority to conduct temperature checks without congressional approval.
“I cannot find any law that gives TSA the authority to perform temperature checks as reported,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D., Miss.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, in an emailed statement Friday.
The Trump administration “should not put these front-line workers in further danger in order to provide passengers a potential false sense of safety,” he said.
The TSA ran a week long pilot of temperature checks at Washington Dulles International Airport in April, administration officials said.
Some TSA officials have resisted implementation of temperature scans because they think a person’s temperature is a poor indicator of coronavirus infection, because it won’t detect asymptomatic carriers and could block people with other ailments from travel, according to people familiar with the matter.
TSA officials also are worried about the quality of thermal scanners on the market and the cost of purchasing a large number of reliable devices, a person familiar with their thinking said.
Some airport and airline officials have raised concerns about how to handle cases when someone does have a fever. People with high temperatures will be turned over to officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the administration official said.
White House and senior Homeland Security officials pushed for thermal scanning to move ahead to bolster consumer confidence in the safety of air travel and help jump-start the economy, people familiar with the discussions said.
Airline executives have said temperature checks will be crucial in setting travelers’ minds at ease, in conjunction with other measures like requiring masks in flight, reducing points of contact, and encouraging social distancing. Frontier Airlines has said it would take passengers’ temperatures before boarding beginning June 1.
Frontier has said passengers with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher will be given time to rest if possible, then checked again. If the high temperature persists, a gate agent will explain that the passenger won’t be allowed to fly “for the health and safety of others” and Frontier will work to rebook the trip, the airline said.
Paine Field Passenger Terminal, a privately-owned airport in Everett, Wash., recently put in a thermal camera aimed at screening passengers for fevers. The equipment scans people as they pass by, and anyone it flags would be pulled aside to be checked individually, said Brett Smith, chief executive of Propeller Airports LLC, the airport’s operator.
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