The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has seen travel volume increase this summer and the agency is prepared to handle the bump in travelers in advance of the July 4th holiday while remaining committed to supporting a healthy and secure environment for airline passengers, TSA employees and airport personnel. However, the checkpoint experience will look different to passengers who have not flown since the start of the pandemic and individuals flying out of LaGuardia Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport or Newark Liberty International Airport should be prepared for a “new normal.”
Nationwide TSA officers are screening between 1.8 and 2.1 million people daily, which is a large increase from last year, but still down significantly from 2019, when closer to 2.5 million people were screened daily during the summer. At LaGuardia Airport, TSA was screening about 50,000 travelers on a busy summer day in 2019, prior to the pandemic, and is screening closer to 26,000 travelers per day currently. At JFK International Airport, TSA was screening close to 100,000 individuals per day pre-pandemic and is currently screening closer to 57,000 people today. At Newark Liberty International Airport, TSA was screening 70,000 people or more during the summer months prior to the pandemic and is currently screening approximately 48,000 passengers daily.
TSA has observed that there are notably fewer business travelers at the same time that there is an increase in the number of leisure travelers. This is most notable on Sundays, which now tends to be the busiest travel day of the week.
“Leisure travelers are not as familiar with security checkpoint protocols, especially when it comes to knowing what is permitted to be carried through a security checkpoint,” said Robert Duffy, TSA’s Federal Security Director for LaGuardia Airport. “We strongly recommend that travelers arrive at the terminal two hours prior to their scheduled flight. We also ask travelers to come prepared to the airport for security screening. That means knowing what should and should not be packed in a carry-on bag or checked bag. The TSA web site has a lot of helpful information on preparing for a flight.”
Travelers whose items trigger an alarm at the checkpoint and have their carry-on bags flagged for a search typically state that they did not realize that they had the item with them. “We are experiencing a pandemic and so we want to reduce touchpoints,” Duffy said. “When someone has a prohibited item that is in their carry-on bag that triggers an alarm, that results in additional touchpoints, which is what we want to avoid.” To help reduce the likelihood that a carry-on bag will require a search, travelers should start with an empty bag before they begin to pack so that there are no prohibited items inside, he said.
Everyone in the airport is required to continue to wear a mask as prescribed by the federal mask mandate when they are in airports, bus and rail stations, as well as while on passenger aircraft, public transportation, passenger railroads, and over-the-road buses operating on scheduled fixed-routes. This means that all travelers must be wearing a mask at TSA airport screening checkpoints and throughout the airport and during their flights. If a traveler does not have a mask, a TSA officer will offer a mask to that individual at the checkpoint.
“Individuals who have not traveled recently will notice some changes in the checkpoint screening process that are our new normal,” Duffy said. “When approaching the travel document checking podium, passengers will see TSA officers wearing masks and gloves. Most will be positioned behind acrylic barriers to reduce cross contamination with passengers. Our TSA officers will change their gloves between each pat down and they will use a fresh swab if they need to swab your hands or your carry-on items.”
When travelers approach the travel document checking podium, they will be asked to scan their own boarding pass—electronic or paper—to reduce a touchpoint. They also will be asked to remove their masks for a few seconds so that the officer can match the individual’s face to the photo on their ID.
As travelers place their items into bins along the conveyor belt, they will continue to see TSA officers in masks, gloves and face shields standing behind an acrylic barrier offering guidance and answering questions.
TSA officers will be changing their gloves between each pat-down and between each bag search. Travelers may request that a TSA officer put on a new pair of gloves at any time. TSA officers also will be using a fresh swab for each passenger when testing for possible explosive material.
TSA employees will be conducting routine cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched surfaces and security screening equipment at the checkpoints.
TSA is now allowing travelers to bring one liquid hand sanitizer container up to 12 ounces per passenger in carry-on bags until further notice. Passengers can expect that these containers larger than the standard allowance of 3.4 ounces of liquids permitted through a checkpoint will need to be screened separately, which will add some time to their checkpoint experience. Travelers also are permitted to bring individually packaged alcohol or anti-bacterial wipes in carry-on or checked luggage.
To reduce touchpoints, it is recommended that travelers place items from their pockets such as wallets, keys, lip balm, tissues and cell phones into their carry-on bags to be screened instead of putting items from their pockets directly into bins. This minimizes the placing of personal items in a bin that you might hold to your face such as lip balm, tissues and cell phones. It also reduces the chance that travelers will leave something behind in a bin.
Individuals who are planning to travel this summer should consider enrolling in TSA PreCheck®. The popular expedited screening program allows travelers to leave on their shoes, jackets, belts and enables them to keep their electronics and 3-1-1 bags in their carry-on bags.