As the coronavirus crisis has lingered, airlines, airline employees, some airports and many passengers have sought to ensure that travelers wear masks throughout the process of flying.
The Transportation Security Administration has not been an ally in that effort.
Rather TSA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has shown “an unwillingness to participate as an airport shareholder,” said an airline spokesperson who asked not to be named.
Customer surveys and anecdotal evidence indicate that passengers notice the TSA’s failure to enforce a mask requirement as travelers pass through security, or to require social distancing during baggage checks, the spokesperson said.
That reluctance is unsurprising, said John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents 150,000 transport workers including about 65,000 employed in the airline industry.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Transportation rejected a petition from the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO to require masks for passengers on commercial passenger transportation.
The federal agencies “won’t step up,” Samuelsen said Wednesday. “They won’t create an across the board mandate on anything related to Covid-19 related safety measures or worker protection.”
On Monday, as President Trump entered the White House after leaving Walter Reed Army hospital, “We saw him rip off his mask as soon as he was able,” Samuelsen said. “The administration is philosophically against masks.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 29, I observed security at Charlotte Douglas International Airport for several hours during the late afternoon. Charlotte Douglas was the sixth busiest airport in the U.S. during the first six months of 2020, according to data from global aviation data firm Cirium (Based on domestic passenger totals).
At each of the three security checkpoints, I saw a person go through TSA security without wearing a mask. In two of those cases, the passengers were older men, who were perhaps confused. The third man, middle-aged, appeared to be seeking to make a political statement. I told him “Wear a mask” as he approached security, and he ignored me. (From my vantage points, I could not clearly see the three passengers emerge following baggage screening.)
I observed a limited effort to space passengers as they checked luggage, although in some cases the first TSA officer, referred to as the TDC or travel document checker, sought to enforce spacing with slight delays in his inspection of the boarding passes. My overall impression was that TSA remains focused on security and minimally engaged in protecting passengers from Covid-19.
TSA spokesman Mark Howell said that while the agency would prefer that passengers wear masks, it “will not prohibit a passenger from entering the security checkpoint if they refuse to wear a mask because we do not have that authority.”
Effective June 26, an executive order by North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper requires face coverings in public areas including airports. However, the TSA security area is federal property and is not subject to the state requirement.
Said Howell, “The security and health of the traveling public and the TSA workforce is our highest priority. Accordingly, we strongly urge passengers to follow state and local mandates and wear masks throughout the entire airport for everyone’s protection.”
At Charlotte, Howell added, “Masks are available (from the TDC) for passengers requesting them.” Additionally, he said, “If a passenger without facial protection requires secondary screening (i.e. pat-down) while inside the checkpoint, that passenger will be given one to wear.”
Regarding social distancing, Howell said, the TSA’s travel document checker “meters travelers as they enter into the security checkpoint. If the line backs up, the officer will not allow the traveler to advance from the TDC position until proper spacing is attained.”
The task can be difficult to impossible at Charlotte Douglas because of limited space for security checks and immense demand at times when dozens of flights can depart in a window of about an hour.
Katherine Estep, spokesperson for airline trade association Airlines For America, praised the TSA, noting that it “has been a good and transparent partner throughout this global health crisis and has played a critical role in adding extra layers of protection to reduce the risk of transmission for the traveling public.”
Meanwhile a second airline spokesperson, who asked to be named, noted that neither the Transportation Department nor the Federal Aviation Administration mandates masks on board aircraft. It has therefore fallen to each airline to devise and enforce its own mask requirements.
“It would be very helpful if DOT or FAA did that,” the spokesperson said. As for TSA, the spokesperson said, “We and other (airlines) mandate masks throughout the journey, but the real estate in the TSA area is not controlled by airlines.”