This post is also available in: heעברית (Hebrew)

When the global COVID-19 pandemic subsides, travel will look different. Virus mitigation protocols like social distancing will need to continue to avert the resurgences of the coronavirus. Until a safe and effective vaccine is developed, this will be the new normal. Unfortunately, airport security and social distancing are incompatible.  

How could airport security protocols be modified without compromising their mission to protect the air system? Incremental modifications to procedures will be essential.

In the US, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) procedures to protect the air system right now employ passenger physical screening as the primary component at airports. However, physical screening is a person-to-person intensive process between passengers and TSOs (security officers). 

Numerous virus transmission touchpoints between TSOs and passengers during the security checks process place both groups at risk for infection.

Implementing policies like permitting 12-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer in carry-on baggage and permitting passengers to wear face masks have been put into place and are helpful. The solution we’re seeing is to systematically transform the pool of travelers and the manner in which airport screening can be conducted without compromising the integrity of the screening process.

Passenger identity validation draws TSOs and passengers together in close proximity. Biometric identity verification is long overdue for the majority of passengers. The first step is to facilitate all travelers enrolled in any biometric travel program such as CLEAR to use their membership for identity validation at airport security checkpoints. This can be done by the Department of Homeland Security working with CLEAR to enroll all such travelers, at no cost to the travelers, according to Once biometric identity has been confirmed, such travelers will be subjected to no additional screening, similar to flight crew screening. 

PreCheck passengers will be subjected to the same expedited screening. In addition, the TSA should reintroduce managed inclusion, which allows TSOs to direct some non-PreCheck passengers into the PreCheck lanes. With total passenger screening times reduced, passengers can be more widely spaced when waiting in security lines, while maintaining reasonable passenger waiting times.  

Such changes will marginally increase the risk to the air system. This must be weighed against the reduction in coronavirus transmission at airport security checkpoints and the associated suppression of coronavirus transmission within the air travel system. The key point is reducing TSO, passenger touchpoints, and in the long run, increasing the number of PreCheck screenings.    

The inevitability of airport health screenings is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly as airlines will look to reassure passengers that air travel is safe when the pandemic subsides, according to

“Health is the new safety, or will be the new safety, for air travel”, said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research. For passengers, he said, “it will be the new element they consider as they determine if they want to take a trip and potentially which airlines or which airports they are comfortable using”.