7 Reasons New TSA Temperature Checks Will Make Air Travel Worse

The Administration wanted the CDC to do temperature checks at airports. They refused. U.S. airlines have been lobbying for the government to do these checks – they don’t want the responsibility of doing it themselves, even though that would be better for travelers. Now the TSA is preparing to do it at security checkpoints.

This will begin at about a dozen airports as soon as this coming week.

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.

…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.

If the government does it, it’s not the airline’s fault for denying you boarding – even if thermometers are faulty.. Airlines don’t have a customer service problem if there are unhappy passengers. Instead any incident potentially carriers criminal and civil penalties.

This isn’t going to make air travel safer, and it’s going to make the travel experience worse for a long time to come.

  1. Temperature checks don’t stop spread of the virus. A large subset of people infected with COVID-19 never develop symptoms and the virus may be at its most contagious just prior to symptoms showing. Fever isn’t even always a symptom that develops, just a common one.

    Indeed, CDC testing of 30,000 inbound passengers from China didn’t catch a single case and TSA officials themselves “are worried about the quality of thermal scanners on the market.”

  2. According to the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee the move is illegal, “I cannot find any law that gives TSA the authority to perform temperature checks as reported.”

  3. If the TSA does it, temperature checks won’t end after the coronavirus pandemic – and that’s contrary to the government’s own medical advice. We still take off our shoes and take out liquids (without precheck) even without active threats.

    Temporary restrictions on ‘dangerous’ objects that even the TSA wanted to stop searching for haven’t been able to be overcome because of perception issues, and bureaucracies are inherently conservative (not wanting to be blamed if anything bad happens, since they don’t get credit on the upside).

    Yet prior to the coronavirus pandemic the CDC actually recommended foregoing travel if you had a fever over 100 degrees and other symptoms, but a fever alone wasn’t reason to cancel a trip in their medical opinion.

  4. TSA will deny boarding due to false positives, and let people with fevers slip through. TSA has a poor track record servicing, calibrating and maintaining equipment. Over time you should expect false temperature readings, either passengers improperly denied boarding or people with fevers permitted to travel. Airlines would be subject to weights and measures requirements the way they are for checked bags, and consumers would have redress. There’s very little redress when the TSA gets it wrong.

  5. Denies boarding to people without coronavirus. Children and people with cancer can have slightly elevated temperatures. Combine that with poorly calibrated devices and TSA is deny air travel to children with cancer, not just people spreading a virus.

  6. This distracts TSA from its security mission. They’ve said themselves that taking scissors away distracts from searching for explosive devices. Adding more duties spreads thin their focus, and if you believe TSA has an important role in airline security then this makes airlines less safe.

  7. Flexible ticketing policies would be a better answer. People with a fever usually know it and – especially if airlines provide flexibility with fee waivers and rescheduling – are likely to reschedule on their own. Wouldn’t it be better for passengers to change travel plans before going to the airport rather than showing up and being turned away after coming into contact with other passengers and TSA?

Government temperature checks are a visible sign that safety is being taken seriously, not a way to take safety seriously. That’s even the reason behind the move.

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.

When the TSA does this it will be done poorly and without accountability. When airlines are responsible for temperature checks poor performance won’t be tolerated, and media coverage of it will force change – something that hasn’t happened with one of the worst bureaucracies in the federal government.

Unfortunately as we know from United’s David Dao incident, airlines will revert to turning customer service problems into law enforcement problems.

Ultimately this may be a solution in search of a problem – that’s fine if airlines want to do it themselves to market that travel is safe, but that’s not where government should be focusing its resources.

Update: I’d add that if you are inclined to favor this because you see flying as risky for public health, then you should believe TSA temperature checks are a net negative since they’re being done not to protect health but – as described by their proponents – as a marketing tactic to convince more people to fly.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Disagree.

    Much better to have checks centralized and performed by a single entity such as TSA than have airlines individually perform them which will lead to hundreds of procedural and variances among airlines and their staff.

    Having unified screening with set of similar equipment, policies and training far more preferable than thousands of individual airline agents performing the checks with their varied equipment, policies and training. Just imagine the fiascos at the gate as inexperienced airline staff must fumble with different thermometers, in the midst of all the other boarding issues. Recipe for travel mess.

    Also, don’t see this as a burden the individual airline needs to carry, but instead a national health issue that better addressed and managed at government levels.

  2. @James A – You’re simply not describing the TSA world we live in, where that agency is competent and airlines are not. You can wish for a centralized competent agency (?) but temperature checks at the airport aren’t being done as a ‘national health issue’ but as a marketing program to encourage flying.

  3. I would more likely trust the privatized security companies to actually get this sorta right, vs. the TSA

  4. Couldn’t agree more. I don’t want TSA and National Public Health anywhere near each other. TSA already has too much power and far too little oversight or responsibility to those they serve (us).

  5. If we have to do this – and yes it is stupid and largely pointless – then doing it at a central checkpoint that all passengers have to pass through – e.g. the TSA checkpoint(s) – makes far more sense than the airlines doing it at the gate or at check-in. I have zero confidence in the airline’s ability to do this competently or consistently either.

    And it looks like taking a couple Tylenol for fever suppression before going to the airport will become best practice for those who can.

  6. If you don’t like it, don’t travel. That seems to the state of the country now. Everything is against your rights but what about the rights of others? The narcissistic egotistical generation. Don’t work for stuff, expect things given to them, and everything offends them.

  7. When I’m on a short connection in SFO, and I’m mopping my face with a handkerchief, am I going to be denied boarding because I’m registering 99.7? Airports are often too damn hot in many locations. What if I get out of an Uber at IAH in July and the car is warm? Whoops, guess I’m not flying.

    This is beyond stupid. The vast majority of the infected are asymptomatic which means they don’t have symptoms, like, you know, a fever.

  8. If we have to screen temperature it does seems most logical to do at a single checkpoint where everyone passes rather than performed by airlines at gates or ticketing.

    While TSA might not be perfect, I would trust they could atleast more consistently screen passengers.

  9. Dont want airlines involved in asking medical questions or screening.
    Rather have government do the screening.

  10. I’m responsible for doing the temperature checks at the office every single work day. Suffice it say: it’s a joke!

  11. So the real answer is flexible ticket changes, but we’ll probably get more security theater with random kick outs. Great.

  12. Traveling extensively in Asia, this screening is always performed by authorities, not individual airlines.
    Using a thermal camera the screening does not need to be intrusive nor slow things down. Just keep walking as always and if any issues the authorities pull people out of line for further examination.

  13. This is so disturbing and depressing. People have gone nuts. The temperature check is just one of the multiple stupid things being done over this pandemic. How can people really think this is okay?! This solves NOTHING!

  14. Why put burden on airline staff.
    Seems government is much better place to coordinate and enforce health regulations that are established.

  15. Clearly with a high fever people shouldn’t fly. But aren’t people a lot less likely to be confident to fly, book hotels, book cars, book destination plans if they know that a small fever that might even be an error will leave them stranded? At the very least those who have a minor fever should be able to get coronavirus tests on the spot to ascertain if that is the cause. How many people will be needlessly stranded away from home when they can’t board their return flight? If the stated reason is “to bolster consumer confidence,” I can only seeing it having the direct opposite effect. This is really an awful idea.

  16. I find this hilarious and slightly ironic. This is the outcome you get after promulgating this scam-demic for the past three months. Gary has been front and center advocating for government overreach and has failed to present any contrary evidence that disputes the severity of this “seasonal flu”. You reap what you sow.

  17. I trust having any required screening be performed at the security checkpoint versus being left to the discretion and makeup as you go rules games that airlines and their employees follow.

  18. I agree that this approach doesn’t hold water. If you look at current traffic flow in airports, the place you’re most likely to pick up a contagious disease from a nearby stranger is shuffling through a security line or being handled by highly exposed security personnel. Even if temperature checks were a reliable preventative (which they’re probably not) you’d need to conduct them BEFORE people congest in choke points like security screening zones. Probably the best thing the TSA could do for preventing disease transmission is move people through security faster and touch both passengers and their stuff a lot less.

  19. We don’t know a lot about COVID-19 but we DO know (1) fever is not a symptom for everyone with active virus, (2) many people are asymptomatic but still shed the virus, (3) currently available tests have way too high a degree of false results, (4) just because one has a slightly elevated temperature doesn’t mean they’re contagious with anything and (5) TSA agents are pretty far away from being healthcare professionals of any stripe. Just because people “feel” better about flying doesn’t mean they’re actually safer.

  20. Agree with James. Nigeria started this process (for incoming arrivals) during the ebola crises and resuscitated it for COVID. It worked well in the fight against ebola though ultimately contract tracing and quarantine won the fight.

    If Nigeria can manage it I am sure the TSA can too. Personally I don’t want to be flying with anyone who has a 100+ temp or a cold. The fact that it won’t capture everyone who is sick does not mean it won’t capture some. And maybe it will deter sick people from attempting to fly. It’s not a panacea but I see no downside.

  21. I go through TSA for flights at least twice a week. As Gary has said, this will do nothing. I’ll be sure to bring a cool pack to the airport each week to wear over my forehead before security.

  22. Gary. Your points make sense but did you see Kurt Stolz’s story from 9 May that’ makes clear in the headline that fever checks are likely “window dressing”?

    (http://www.frequentbusinesstraveler.com/2020/05/airlines-want-tsa-to-check-for-fevers-but-this-may-serve-as-window-dressing/)

    The key two paragraphs in that story are:
    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.

  23. Only person I ever heard referring to temperature checks that are routine in Hong Kong as “as a marketing tactic to convince more people to fly”.

  24. How about require a wellness document from a doctor to present to airlines before being ticketed or checking bags? Or to show with the boarding pass at a checkpoint?

  25. Temperature checks are just a distraction The Trump administration wants to act like they are doing something to protect us when the reality is this does nothing but causes additional delays and actually puts people more at risk because of the delays.

  26. The biggest issue I have with having TSA conduct the checks is that by the time I get to the TSA checkpoint, it’s already too late. I’ve been walking through the airport and exposing other people.If you wanted to actually slow the spread of the virus, wouldn’t you check at the front door?

  27. Much like a lot of the “security” aspects of TSA, much of this will be a placebo: “Ooh, I feel so secure and safe!”.

  28. As stated many times that some won’t present with any symptoms and that includes fever! So while they are preventing passengers with a fever they may be allowing passengers who are actually infected with the virus without any symptoms! People can have a elevated temperature from a ear infection or sinus infection which is not contagious. This is not a full proof or fair way to decide who can be passed through to their airline to board.

  29. When this begins at airports that I fly in or out of my days of travel are over, a marketing scam for the airline, will do no real good in most cases, and puts more trouble on an already burdened and not always successful security group, in addition to the potential violation of laws already on the books.

  30. People who believe this pandimic is fake are covidiots being in the medical field I can tell you it is real and if this simple screening even catches 3 percent of those who carry the virus it gives us that much higher chance of not getting it. Do some real research not the insane research found on you tube or other non documented statements by people who claim they are doctors but you will not find on any registries.

  31. If TSA does it, they only have to do it once. The airlines would have to check again every time you change planes. How would you like to get bumped at an intermediate hub? I vote for TSA. I really don’t think they are all that bad. I reserve my hate for the terrorists that caused all this mess.

  32. Of course there will be the “Anti Trumpers” getting in their 2 cents worth with comments totally off the subject. All these feel good things are just pablum for the masses. Once something starts it is with us until death do us part. Next, just put us in a carton and run us through as checked baggage. Unfortunately to paraphrase Mark Twain “If you don’t read the media you are uninformed. If you do you are misinformed.” Everyone has an agenda regardless of its damage to society.

  33. And government being government, is TSA going to log your name, reservation PNR and flight information and it becomes a part of some record that you are ill? And with whom will TSA be sharing this information? TSA doesn’t exactly have the best track record at securing personal identifying information. What’s this going to do to checkpoint throughput? As passenger counts increase, are we going back to the days of 3+ hour long lines at screening? So, you’ve got a vanilla cold, get denied by TSA. Do you lose your ticket for close-in cancellation? Or do you owe the carrier a $200 change fee to rebook? When has government reach EVER been rolled back without an uproarious dogfight?

  34. How about in the event TSA detects a passenger running a fever, the airline is notified and the AIRLINE makes the board/no-board call?

  35. With a large number of people being asymptomatic with COVID-19 temperature checks are useless.

  36. Agree
    1. Face-to-face temperature checking (which will come after getting flagged)breaks the cardinal rule of social distancing.
    2. Touchless, infrared thermometers are notoriously inaccurate and
    measure only skin surface temperature and not the body core.
    3. Fever may be masked by over-the-counter medications like Advil or
    Aleve, taken for other conditions.
    4. Infected individuals with no symptoms would not be identified by temperature checks and could unknowingly expose the passengers to the virus.

  37. TSA isn’t even consistent from airport to airport. How can they be trusted to be consistent with something like this?
    What about people who have a tendency to get overheated easily when stressed or on exertion — like when traveling or racing through an airport? Their temps are going to be elevated.

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