Senators Cantwell, Scott Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Charge TSA With Implementing Temperature Check Technology Nationwide

WASHINGTON, D.C.?–?U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) today introduced bipartisan legislation that would require the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to establish temperature screenings at airport checkpoints to promote safe air travel during the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic.  

The Cantwell-Scott bill will charge the TSA with deploying a temperature check program across the United States by first testing technology in various scenarios before final rollout.

Said Senator Maria Cantwell, “Americans deserve all the available tools to fight COVID-19. For workers and the traveling public, a temperature check program provides important data. The legislation I introduced would require TSA to use innovative temperature screening technology to better protect passenger and worker health, and build public trust in the aviation system.”

Senator Rick Scott said, “As our economy re-opens and Americans begin traveling more, we have to do everything we can to make sure travel is safe. We also have to ensure consumers are protected from unfair pricing tactics from airlines. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been calling for temperature checks for passengers of mass transit as a common sense way to help keep Americans safe and healthy. This legislation will enable temperature checks while also ensuring airlines are flexible with customers who get sick following the purchase of a flight. If passengers are not allowed to fly due to a fever, airlines will have to work with the customer to reschedule or cancel the flight at no cost.”

Why temperature screening is important 

Because fever is a common indicator of many infectious diseases, the identification of fever through temperature (thermal) screening has been used around the world to identify and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, similar to how such screening was used during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic in 2003, the influenza A (H1N1) pandemic in 2009, and the Ebola outbreak in 2014. The use of temperature checks can help address the current risk of COVID-19 and prepare the United States for future public health risks.

Says Dr. Hilary Godwin, Dean of Public Health at the University of Washington: “Developing and implementing guidelines – like temperature screening — that promote safe air travel is critical to defeating the virus and smoothing the transition back to more regular travel levels. This is especially important to have in place, at the very least until we get more reliable rapid response testing or a vaccine. I’m glad to see Senators Cantwell and Scott put forth this bipartisan solution, and I hope Congress will pass it.” 

According to data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), more than 140 countries and territories world-wide have currently implemented temperature screenings, including eight of the top ten aviation markets by scheduled capacity – with the United States and Germany as the hold outs. International regulators, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and World Health Organization (WHO), have also included thermal screening as part of the combination of measures that can be implemented to manage the risk of COVID-19 in air travel. Temperature screening is more than detection, these checks can serve to dissuade sick persons from traveling. 

How temperature-screening technology work

Temperature checks can be deployed using contactless thermal camera-based systems that automatically screen large numbers of travelers passing through existing security checkpoints. An individual can expect a seamless thermal imaging screening experience because the systems are capable of detecting an individual’s temperature using cameras that relay information to monitored video screens that highlight individuals with elevated temperatures. Once detected, individuals are subject to secondary screening, typically conducted by medical personnel in a private or isolated location.  

The programs protect for individual privacy by limiting the information and images captured through the screening process and the length of time the images are retained.  

Screening programs are already underway in the United States as well. The Hawaii Department of TransportationLos Angeles World Airports (LAWA), and the Port of Seattle, amongst others, have piloted or deployed temperature screening programs to detect individuals with elevated temperatures. The pilot established by the Cantwell-Scott bill would support these ongoing programs with additional data and ensure consistency across airports nationwide.

In a program announced in July, Canada began a phased approach to implement temperature checks at airports, administered by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority—the Canadian counterpart to the Transportation Security Administration. So far, the Canadian program has focused on touchless technology options that facilitate mass screening while managing any privacy concerns. 

Singapore is another country that successfully implemented temperature screenings early on in the coronavirus pandemic based on its experience using temperature checks as a health screening measure as far back as 2003 during the SARS pandemic. Singapore has implemented temperature checks well beyond air travel and uses them at entry to workplaces and elsewhere. The Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech) has developed an automated screening solution, which can allow for a self-service temperature taking and eliminates the need for additional resources to conduct the screening. 

The Cantwell-Scott Fly Safe and Healthy Act of 2020 (S. 4623)           

The Cantwell-Scott legislation requires the Transportation Security Administration within 30 days to establish a pilot program to test temperature screening technology, building on international best practices for such screenings at airports:  

  • The 120-day pilot program would be conducted at TSA checkpoints at airports that represent diverse operating conditions, including those with various passenger throughputs.  
  • As part of the program, the Administrator would have to address protection of personal and medical privacy issues, exceptions for individuals who may have a fever unrelated to COVID-19, and for accommodating individuals with disabilities or observing certain religious practices;
  • The Administrator would have the flexibility to test various technologies, and would be required to ensure Transportation Security Officers are properly trained on how to use the technology and program procedures.
  • No later than 90 days after the pilot program concludes, TSA would be required to issue a policy to deploy program more broadly at airports throughout the United States until the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.  
  • TSA would be permitted to partner with universities or academic institutions, national laboratories, public health authorities, or private entities to develop, evaluate, or improve technology for the purpose of detecting fevers or for conducting secondary screening.  
  • The Secretary of Transportation would be required to issue a rule to require airlines to notify passengers that they will be subject to temperature screening and to encourage them to not come to the airport if they have a fever. 

Any passenger who is denied entry to the sterile area of the airport—and therefore not allowed to fly—would be entitled to cancel or change their flight at no cost to them. Airport or airline employees with fevers not permitted in the sterile area of the airport would be subject to their employer’s leave policies and procedures.

Temperature screenings have other benefits as well 

In addition to the health and safety benefits, using advanced technology to check the temperatures of travelers and workers in an airport can help more people feel safe and confident while traveling.  

Currently in the United States, the U.S. Travel Association reports that 58% of leisure travelers said they planned to “stay-cation” rather than book flights for the remainder of the year. Looking forward, 55% of respondents told IATA they do not plan to travel at all in 2020. Destination Analysts, a market research company, found almost three quarters of respondents were personally concerned with contracting COVID-19; nearly half would replace airline travel with road trips; close to a third are not planning to travel by air before April 2021; and critically, only 18.5% felt safe flying.  

In a recent IATA survey of travelers, however, 80% indicated that temperature checks make them feel safer when traveling. Countries that employ temperature checks can experience a relative rebound in air travel. For example, China and Japan, countries with lengthy experience in using these screenings for pandemics, are at 92% and 55% scheduled capacity levels, as compared to the beginning of 2020. In fact, reports indicate that some Asian carriers will return to profitability in the third quarter. Within Europe, Germany (45%) and Sweden (33%) are not doing as well as France (61%) and Italy (56%), which are performing these checks. Other major aviation markets – United Kingdom, Russia, India, Turkey, and Indonesia – are employing thermal screenings.

According to estimates from Airlines for America and Compass Lexecon, a 10 percent increase in air travel demand could drive more than $1.533 billion in airline salaries, wages, and benefits over the course of three months. In turn, this increase in demand will create approximately 182,000 jobs in total – 45,620 directly at the airline, 74,746 across the supply chain, and 61,230 jobs more broadly, as additional spending makes its way through the economy. Along with these 182,000 additional jobs, as much as $4.8 billion in monetary benefits could be injected into the economy. 

section-by-section of the Fly Safe and Healthy Act of 2020 can be found here

Q&A sheet can be found here.

The following are quotes from additional stakeholders supporting temperature screening prior to traveling: 

Snohomish Health District Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters“In addition to passengers, staff and other airport visitors self-screening and staying home if any symptoms develop, temperature checks could provide an added layer of defense against transmission in the air travel system. This is also something that the Snohomish Health District does at our headquarters for all staff and visitors. It may not catch every case of COVID boarding aircrafts, but it does add some additional protection above and beyond the existing strategies for maintaining passenger and crew safety with respect to COVID.”

National Safety Council President Lorraine M. Martin: “Screening must be a critical component of our collective response to the pandemic. We applaud this bipartisan action to keep both workers and the traveling public as safe as possible.”  

Transport Workers Union of America President John Samuelsen: “The only way our economy will recover from this pandemic is by ensuring the health of our transportation systems. Keeping airports and airlines free from COVID-19 will restore the faith of the travelling public in our airspace and save lives. This bipartisan bill, along with immediate federal aid, are essential steps for our country to climb out of the pandemic recession and back to prosperity. The Transport Workers Union applauds Senator Cantwell and Senator Scott for leading this effort on behalf of aviation workers and travelers.”

Association of Flight Attendants International President Sara Nelson: “The threat to U.S. aviation is the virus itself — the threat is both health and economic. We need a federal plan including health screenings to build confidence in air travel while providing continuous funding to keep aviation workers on the job, connected to our healthcare, and providing essential service to all of our communities. Aviation safety and security has always been a layered approach. We must take action to tackle the totality of the crisis.”

AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Larry Willis: “Aviation will never get back to normal until passengers feel safe flying, and until there are meaningful federal health and safety standards. This bill takes an important step toward safe flying during a pandemic, and does so without compromising the core security responsibilities of the TSA. Aviation, and the good jobs found in this industry, will be critical to the recovery of our economy, and we look forward to working with Congress to advance this legislation as well as meaningful economic relief for airline workers.”

Port of Seattle Commission President Peter Steinbrueck: “The Port of Seattle deeply appreciates Senator Cantwell’s leadership on ensuring a consistent nationwide approach to keeping passengers and employees healthy and safe during the current pandemic. At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), we have implemented a wide range of new FlyHealthy@SEA protocols, but we rely on the federal government to drive solutions throughout the entire air travel system. Directing TSA to pilot temperature screening will help us learn more about how this technology fits into a multi-layered approach to protect our customers and workers.” 

Airlines for America President and CEO Nicholas E. Calio“We are pleased to see Senator Scott and Ranking Member Cantwell’s attention?to this issue. U.S. carriers have been supporting the introduction of temperature checks as an added layer of protection during this public health crisis since June. U.S. airlines have implemented multiple layers of measures to help mitigate the spread of Covid-19, and we continue to believe that temperature checks are a key measure in assuring the traveling public and airline employees that the federal government is prioritizing their safety and well-being.” 

Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Jamie L. Rhee: “With more and more travelers returning to the skies, I applaud the Fly Safe and Healthy Act for creating a TSA pilot program, which would further enhance Chicago’s multilayered approach to airport safety and security — as well as passenger well-being. These are uncertain times, and it has never been more important to provide reassurance to travelers that their journey will be a safe one — a process that begins well before the airplane doors are closed. This program would nicely complement the robust efforts CDA and our many airport partners have already undertaken to provide the safest possible environment.”

U.S. Travel Association Executive Vice President Tori Barnes: “The decline in travel has drained $2 billion per day from the U.S. economy and cost millions of jobs since the start of the pandemic, and restarting the travel sector is pivotal to a broader recovery,” said U.S. Travel Association Executive Vice President for Public Affairs and Policy Tori Emerson Barnes. “While safeguarding health must continue to be the priority, travel ought to be possible with solid protocols in place. This bill’s temperature check pilot program is a prudent step in exploring the framework that will allow travel to more broadly reopen.”