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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.