TSA COVID risks can be limited. Inspectors continue to put air travelers at risk from patdowns, poor glove procedures, and germ-laden bins.
U.S. airlines have significantly upgraded their procedures and protocols to try to stop the transmission of the COVID-19 virus in airports and planes. They’re cleaning and disinfecting more than ever and have made many other essential changes to keep their passengers safe. On the other hand, there are three significant COVID risks at TSA (Transportation Security Administration) airport security checkpoints. These health and safety problems are continuing to put air travelers in harm’s way.
While TSA COVID risks remain, TSA has made some improvements that can prevent the spread of COVID-19. TSA permits individually and bulk-packaged disinfectant wipes to be packed in carry-on bags for airport and aircraft use by air travelers. TSA also permits air travelers to pack a 12-ounce container of hand sanitizer in carry-ons. This is in addition to the liquid and gel allowance already permitted to be packed in carry-on bags.
TSA has increased the frequency and effectiveness of cleaning and disinfecting at its security checkpoints. Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) must wear face masks and gloves while on duty. TSA has made several other welcome changes as well as requiring social distancing, wherever possible, at checkpoints.
Almost 2,000 TSA employees, mostly TSOs, have become infected with COVID-19.
By July, TSA reported that 1,018 of its employees had become infected with COVID-19. Almost all of them are TSOs, front line officers who come in regular contact with the flying public. TSA confirmed that 921 more employees were infected with COVID-19. In just the last two months, 88 percent were TSOs.
Even with so many TSOs infected, TSA continues to perform enhanced pat-downs on passengers which require extremely close contact with them. If you haven’t had an enhanced pat-down from a TSA TSO, I can tell you from personal experience that they even put their hands (gloved) inside your pants or skirt. The potential for infection during pat-downs is high.
The question I must ask is why does TSA persist in performing enhanced pat-downs of air travelers? Perhaps it’s to enforce the idea of the quality of their screening after their publicly disclosed failures. TSA’s own evaluation of its security screening effectiveness to locate weapons and other contraband showed almost total failure. In 2007, they had a 91 percent failure rate. Five years ago, their test results were worse, with a 95 percent failure rate. That was despite increased use of screening technology, including millimeter-wavelength full-body scanners. TSA hasn’t publicly disclosed further testing of its screening efficacy.
A former TSA official calls pat-downs unsafe TSA COVID risks.
Mitchell Brown, former U.S. TSA Federal Security Director, says, “In the COVID-19 era, TSA pat-downs are inherently unsafe.” David Pekoske, the current TSA Administrator said, in part, in his June 23, 2020, report, Administrator’s Intent 2.0, “…we recognize the need to accelerate new and innovative screening concepts to create a near contactless experience at the checkpoint.”
Enhanced pat-downs are doing little to improve screening. They are “inherently unsafe.” Many recognize them as needing to end. Isn’t it time to at least halt pat-downs during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Glove usage is a serious TSA COVID risk at airport security checkpoints.
Along with pat-downs risking the health of passengers, the use of gloves by TSOs is also problematic.
TSA states that they require frontline personnel to wear nitrile gloves when conducting screening duties. They note that “travelers may request for new gloves to be used during the screening process.” That’s good, but many passengers are fearful of demanding that uniformed officers change their gloves because they can stop them from traveling. TSA also states they change their gloves after each pat-down. Unfortunately, that’s not the right time to change gloves. In between pat-downs, no one knows what TSOs may touch.
TSOs should change their gloves just before each pat-down. Moreover, I’ve seen TSOs improperly change gloves so that the glove’s exterior becomes contaminated. That needs to change.
TSA COVID risks include security bins for passenger belongings. They are known to carry more germs than airport toilets.
TSA checkpoint bins, in which passengers place their personal belongings for x-ray examination, are also TSA COVID risks. A study published in 2018 in the BioMed Central Infectious Diseases Journal, revealed the problem. Swabs of the surface of checkpoint bins at the Helsinki Airport showed that the bins carried more germs than the airport’s toilets. TSA has increased the frequency of bin cleaning and disinfecting, but they aren’t cleaned between each use. Infected passengers’ bin contamination can transmit COVID-19 before the bins are re-cleaned.
Here’s what must be done to reduce TSA COVID risks.
What should TSA do to immediately address these three areas of TSA security risks to air travelers?
1. TSA must upgrade employee testing and screening for COVID-19 to reduce the potential number of infected employees on the job.
2. Since they’re not particularly effective and inherently unsafe, TSA must halt passenger pat-downs.
3. If pat-downs aren’t halted during the pandemic, TSA must instruct TSOs to change their gloves directly prior to any pat-down or any other contact with passengers. TSOs must be required to properly change gloves to eliminate their contamination.
4. TSA must replace all checkpoint bins with antimicrobial bins. While waiting for their replacement, TSA should clean and disinfect every bin between each use.
Immediately halt unnecessary TSA security risks to passengers’ health and safety. Implement these essential changes. Further study is not needed to know these changes are critical to prevent COVID-19 infectious risk to passengers by TSA.
After many years working in corporate America as a chemical engineer, executive and eventually CFO of a multinational manufacturer, Ned founded a tech consulting company and later restarted NSL Photography, his photography business. As a well known corporate, travel and wildlife photographer, Ned travels the world writing about travel and photography, as well as running photography workshops, seminars and photowalks. Visit Ned’s Photography Blog and Galleries.