Government Temperature Checks By TSA Are A Bad Idea, Let Airlines Do It Themselves

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak about half of people said they’d fly even if they had the flu. 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. Airlines generally wouldn’t waive cancel or change fees for passengers with a fever.

Socially many people felt compelled to travel when sick, perhaps they’d lose out on an important meeting. I always hated this – and got very angry at people who came to work at my office sick – because they risked spreading whatever they had. Financially airlines have made it hard for people to reschedule.

Airlines lobbyists want the TSA to do temperature checks as a visible sign that safety is being taken seriously, along the lines that they’re now requiring masks. They don’t want the responsibility themselves, but that’s bad for passengers.

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

  • If the government does it, expect the temperature-taking requirement to last far into the future. 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). 2006’s liquid ban to remains in place.

  • 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.

Frontier Airlines starts performing temperature checks on passengers this Thursday. This raises some concerns, like what happens to the medical information? How secure is the passenger’s information in their reservation – that they may have been sick, that they’ve been denied travel – and how is it shared?

Air Canada insists on temperature checks but that alone isn’t enough to deny boarding, they first ‘consult a medical professional’ at least. After all children and people with cancer can have slightly elevated temperatures.

I would support airlines that wanted to pursue temperature checks at this time, though I think we need to work through the privacy issues. At least there’d be a competitive need to make the checks unobtrusive and based on science (as soon as the first horror story of someone being improperly denied boarding we might get some reforms of bad practices, unlikely with TSA).

That said much of SARS-CoV-2 spread appears to happen asymptomatically. Temperature checks don’t actually do much. Right before someone has symptoms seems to be when they are most dangerous, emitting a strong load of the virus but unaware they are doing so. On the other hand people who are sick will usually know it and – especially if airlines provide flexibility with fee waivers and rescheduling – are likely to reschedule on their own.

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.

The CDC already said they wouldn’t do airport temperature checks. So now airlines are turning to the TSA, but diverting their focus, which is ostensibly supposed to be protecting air travel from would-be terrorists, and giving them a distracting mission seems like an even worse idea. Their performance hasn’t been very good as it is.

Putting this process in the hands of the government is a bad idea. It’s likely to lead to lower levels of accuracy, with very little accountability, and it will eliminate the need for airlines to offer flexibility to passengers – something they should be doing in advance of day of travel rather than forcing someone with a fever to come to the airport, prove they’re unfit to fly (while exposing other passengers) and beg for flexibility on the spot.

If airlines impose temperature checks, or worse yet get the government to do it for them, they have a special responsibility to provide re-accommodation of passengers with a fever.

Finally while right now masks and temperature checks are ways to reassure passengers that flying is safe (whether or not these measures actually mean that) in the future as we get past the pandemic they will be reminders that flying is unsafe and good luck getting the government to eliminate the practice of taking temperatures at that point. Airlines need to be careful what they wish for.

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, 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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  1. If you want something to be run in the most wasteful, inefficient and inept way possible, then give it to the TSA.

  2. I am not a statistician and have not found answers to the following via a google search, but I wonder what are the relative risks of having significant illness/bodily injury or death resulting from:

    driving to the airport in an urban area
    a commercial flight
    contracting the COVID-19 virus
    smoking 1 pack of cigarettes per day
    excessive alcohol consumption
    noncompliance with treatment for hypertension

  3. This really makes no sense. Sure it’s possible to be asymptomatic, but those with a fever certainly are still contagious. So you’d rather not test just because the test isn’t 100%? And you’d rather have the airlines do it, after the infectious passenger has been wondering around the airport and at the gate for a couple hours, instead of at the very beginning of the process? That’s just stupid. Do temp checks at airport entrances. Many airports in Asia have automated sensors at immigration. It’s time to do the same at all airport entrances, before people are queued up and in closer proximity at security.

  4. Or you know what? Just DON’T FLY. This is a PANDEMIC, maybe your vacation can wait.

  5. WR2 makes a good point – you could put the requirement on airports, almost all of which are local government owned and could work with local health departments. The airports receive federal money, which is your enforcement hook and could also be a direct channel to fund the nurses’ time. Local governments are the most trusted by the public for a host of reasons.

  6. You wouldn’t even need nurses per se – certified nursing assistants, EMT’s, many kinds of less expensive but still trained health care staff can do temperature checks. Could use National Guard medical staff also while civilians are hired and trained up.

  7. I agree with WR2. This is a public health issue. Let the public servants handle it, or don’t worry about it at all. Leaving it to the airlines will lead to the same health risk being treated very differently by various private enterprises. Gary is right that temperature checks aren’t too effective at containing COVID-19 spreads, but it is still an effective way to screen for other general illnesses (SARS or flu… and COVID). The Asian airports have been doing it long after SARS was gone, and we can debate its effectiveness, but it establishes a health check point which becomes useful when the next pandemic hits.

  8. Good call on having the airlines do this themselves. TSA has enough problems without having another job tossed onto their lap.

  9. Would it not be better if we have test few days before flying at the moment there so much happin day by day and have a qr on your phone to say you are able to fly we are going back to days of orvel Wright we need to move against this problem

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