Travel volumes at airports have been increasing of late, although still below the 2.5 million or so passengers the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened every day, on average, before the pandemic.
As passengers return, they will notice the airport security experience has changed during the pandemic – and many of the changes are likely to continue even longer.
Need for touchless technology
The lowest U.S. air travel volume in history was recorded last April, with approximately 87,500 passengers. As passenger traffic plummeted, the aviation community sought to explore the potential of new technologies to make security checkpoints more contactless and flexible when the traffic numbers return.
The pandemic has seen an increase in touchless technology deployed in the screening area. Used for cabin baggage screening, Computed Tomography (CT) produces high-quality, 3-D images to enable a more thorough analysis of a bag’s contents.
Millimeter-wave body scanners began replacing metal detectors globally as a primary screening method
Enhanced Advanced Imaging Technology (eAIT), which uses non-ionising radio-frequency energy in the millimeter spectrum, safely screens passengers without physical contact for threats such as weapons and explosives, which may be hidden under a passenger’s clothing. Millimeter-wave body scanners began replacing metal detectors globally as a primary screening method.
Other innovations include an automatic screening lane, centralised image processing, and artificial intelligence (AI). Looking ahead, AI algorithms have the ability to clear most passengers and bags automatically, making the process smoother and freeing up staff to focus only on alarms. The pandemic’s need for contactless screening may accelerate the adoption of AI.
Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) machines automatically verify identification documents presented by passengers during the screening process.
The TSA continues to accept expired Driver’s Licenses and state-issued IDs for up to a year after expiration, based on the premise that license renewals may be delayed and/or more difficult during the pandemic. The REAL ID enforcement deadline was extended to Oct. 1, 2021.
Checkpoint health precautions have been a part of the airport screening experience since early in the pandemic. Last summer, the TSA announced the “Stay Healthy. Stay Secure” campaign, which included requirements such as social distancing among travelers, ID verification without physical contact, plastic shielding installed at various locations, and increased cleaning and disinfecting.
In January 2021, President Biden signed an Executive Order requiring travellers to wear face masks when in airports and other transportation facilities (to remain in effect until May 11).
Clear is a privately owned company that provides expedited security that uses biometrics either a person’s eyes or face to speed along the process of getting people through checkpoints.
TSA officers wear masks and gloves at checkpoints and may also wear eye protection or clear plastic face shields. The limits on allowable liquids a passenger may take on board were broadened to include a hand sanitiser container of up to 12 ounces, one per passenger in a carry-on bag.
A paradigm shift
Just as aviation security changed after 9/11, the COVID-19 crisis is expected to lead to a paradigm shift to create a safer and more secure environment. Measures were implemented so that passengers, staff and other stakeholders could have continued assurance and confidence in airports amid and after the pandemic.