Airlines Want the TSA to Check for Fevers, But This May Just Serve as Window Dressing

Security checkpoint at JFK Airport

By Kurt Stolz on 9 May 2020
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Will temperature checks for passengers be part of the so-called “new normal” when people begin to travel once again?

An industry group representing major U.S. airlines including the four largest U.S. carriers, American, United, Delta, and Southwest, thinks so.

Airlines for America said Saturday that its members support having the Transportation Security Administration take the temperatures of travelers and customer-facing airline employees for the duration of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Health officials believe that temperature checks are an effective way of identifying passengers who might have the virus, and the industry group believes having this done at the security checkpoint would instill confidence in the flying public.

“Temperature checks also will provide additional public confidence that is critical to relaunching air travel and our nation’s economy,” it said.

A low-grade fever of 100.4° F (38° C) is considered a symptom of the novel coronavirus along with fatigue and a dry cough, but it could be indicative of many other illnesses as well. A normal temperature gives a false assurance as the traveler could be asymptomatic or still in the incubation period.

Temperature checks also don’t take into consideration the fact that an individual could have taken a pain relief medicine such as aspirin or Tylenol, which also treats fever.

Earlier this year, British researchers published a study that found that temperature checks will fail to detect a coronavirus nearly half the time.

Last week, the TSA said that nothing has been determined about having its agents screen for fevers.

“At this time, no decision has been made regarding specific health screening measures at airports,” the agency said in the statement.

Temperature checks, usually via an elevated body detection system, have been commonplace in many parts of Asia since the SARS outbreak.  McDonald’s instituted a temperature and wellness check for all employees at the start of shifts in April, as did New York City for its bus, train, and subway workers.

Airlines quickly followed suit in limited measure.

In April, United Airlines began to conduct private and confidential temperature checks for airport and network operations employees, but not for flight attendants or pilots.

“These precautions will create an additional layer of protection for our people and our customers as we continue to keep safety at the center of everything that we do,” United spokesman Charles Hobart told FBT in an e-mail interview.

Taking passenger temperatures is a concept fraught with peril, however.  Doing so will not detect asymptomatic passengers, and they are nonetheless contagious.  Passengers could have a body temperature of over 100.4° F without having Covid-19, and airlines would have to agree on rules that would allow passengers to be reimbursed if they are denied access to the secure part of the terminal due to fever.

Finally, given the number of protests that have erupted over lockdowns and requirements for face masks in many states, would the federal government want to step into the fray?

Meanwhile, Paine Airport an international airport that serves the Seattle area, introduced last week a non-invasive fever detection system at its passenger terminal that uses an thermal camera designed by Athena Security. The system screens all passengers for fever just prior to entering the TSA checkpoint. If the system reports that a passenger has a fever higher than 100.4° F, the airport will require a secondary screening in order to make a determination on whether the passenger can fly.

Meanwhile, Airlines for America wants the TSA to do temperature checks, even though the agency consistently fails to detect attempts to smuggle weapons and explosives through the security checkpoint.

The airlines, however, have confidence.

“The screening is there,” Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said in an earnings call last week. “So it seems very natural to be done at that point.”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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