Another new thing to expect at the airport: Getting your temperature checked

Air travelers are likely to see yet another change when they start flying again: A pre-boarding temperature check.

a man wearing sunglasses and a hat: Frontier Airlines becomes first U.S. airline to announce passenger temperature checks

Such screenings could become standard as a tool to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, along with face masks, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.

And no, it won’t be like visiting a doctor who sticks a thermometer in your mouth. Instead, the screener likely won’t touch you at all, using either a thermal camera or a infrared thermometer held a few inches from your forehead.

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The airlines are in favor of temperature checks. At least two North American carriers (Frontier and Air Canada) and one airport (Paine Field in Washington State) have already taken the initiative. However, most want the federal government – specifically, the Transportation Security Administration or U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – to be responsible for carrying them out.

“We’re urging the TSA to begin temperature scans as part of the screening process at the checkpoints,” Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, the nation’s largest domestic carrier, told CBS News. He believes that is the most logical place to check temperatures since all fliers must pass through that area.

In an interview with CNBC, he added, “We’ll need to work with the federal government in terms of screening customers to make sure, for example, that you don’t have someone getting on the airplane that has a fever,” he said. “I think that that’s going to be very important.”

The trade organization for U.S. and Canadian airports also wants the federal government to conduct the screenings.

On Tuesday, the Airports Council International-North America said that any health screening, should be “performed by federal government officials, and minimize the impact on airport operations.”

The Airports Council also asked the federal government to adopt guidelines for passengers to wear face coverings in airports. (Right now, the decision on whether to require masks is up to the individual carriers, although once the first did, others followed suit almost immediately.)

Neither the TSA nor the CDC has indicated any plans to take on that responsibility or when they might start. Even if they do, there is debate about whether checking for fevers has much impact on keeping sick people from boarding planes or from entering the country. After all, temperature scans done on travelers entering the country from China and Europe seemingly did little to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Last week, after learning the White House was weighing re-implementing temperature checks at U.S. airports, the CDC’s director of global mitigation and quarantine, urged TSA’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, to reconsider the idea, saying it was ineffective the first time they tried it, prior to the travel bans on China and Europe.

“Thermal scanning as proposed is a poorly designed control and detection strategy as we have learned very clearly,”  Dr. Martin  Cetron wrote in an Thursday email to Department of Homeland Security officials obtained by USA TODAY. “We should be concentrating our CDC resources where there is impact and a probability of mission success.” 

Accordingly, Cetron asked that the CDC not be assigned temperature-screening duty again.

In a report released on Monday, the CDC concluded that the screenings were not effective because people can have the coronavirus and show no symptoms. Furthermore, a study published in the journal “Nature” also found that carriers may be most contagious a day or two before becoming symptomatic.

“The benefits of screening for case detection at the airport might be limited for a respiratory disease with the potential for presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission,” the CDC reported.

Another issue: What happens to the data? The CDC report concluded that monitoring travelers would be labor-intensive for public health officials. 

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, called it “a logistical nightmare.”

“Even if the CDC had the resources, the information would need to go somewhere,” he said. “All the evidence that we have suggests that is has little or marginal effectiveness.”

In spite of skepticism from the CDC, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows pressed ahead last week, directing the DHS to announce the airport screenings, which would be visible and aimed at instilling confidence in travelers, according to meeting notes obtained by USA TODAY.  

Passengers with fevers, Meadows said, would be referred to the CDC for clearance. However, the full plan has not been finalized. (Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, did not answer questions about the airport screening proposal.) 

Regardless of who ends up holding the thermometer, it seems that temperature checks will become a routine part of the process of checking in for a flight.

In some cases, it already is. Air Canada will require temperature checks starting Friday. On June 1,  Frontier Airlines will become the first U.S. carrier to require them. Anyone who registers a temperature of 100.4℉ or above two times on the same day will not be allowed to board, including passengers and employees.

“Temperature screenings add an additional layer of protection for everyone onboard,” said Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle in a statement.

Contributing: Brett Murphy and Letitia Stein, USA TODAY

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