Consumers should prepare for significant changes at the airport

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The TSA has a new way of doing things, but all are in the traveler’s best interest

If you haven’t flown since the pandemic took control of our lives, you should be prepared for major changes courtesy of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

TSA has experienced a recent growth of travelers coming through airport checkpoints. Now, with Memorial Day weekend and summer upon us, the agency wants travelers to know that there are plenty of changes waiting for them at the airport.

What to expect in the screening process

At the heart of the agency’s changes is reducing the potential for cross-contamination. To make that happen, physical contact is being limited and physical distance is being extended. The next time you fly, here’s what you can expect:

Travelers keep their boarding passes to themselves. Instead of travelers handing over boarding passes to a TSA officer at the travel document podium, they will now place their boarding pass (paper or one from a phone app) on the boarding pass reader themselves. Once that’s done, travelers will be asked to show their boarding pass to the TSA officer at the podium to visually inspect it. 

Separate food for X-ray screening. Any passenger carrying on food will be required to place the food into a clear plastic bag and then into a bin, like travelers have been doing with laptops, shoes, and belts. 

The reason for this? Food items have been known to trigger alarms, and separating the food reduces the chance that a TSA officer will need to open the carry-on bag and remove the food items to take a closer look. While this may sound odd, the TSA thinks that requiring this will create better social distancing and reduce the potential for cross-contamination. By the way, TSA Precheck members do not need to remove items from their bags.

Changes to packing and carry-on. This is a big change, so heads-up. Items such as liquids, gels, or aerosols in quantities greater than 3.4 ounces in a traveler’s carry-on bag are still a no-no. But, in response to COVID-19, TSA is allowing ONE liquid hand sanitizer container, up to 12 ounces per passenger, in carry-on bags. Passengers are required to remove the hand sanitizer from the carry-on bag before being submitted for X-ray screening. 

Travelers should know that the TSA has thrown a wrench in the works if the scanner finds that a bag contains a prohibited item. If the scanner finds something, passengers may be directed to return to the table outside of security with their carry-on bags where they’ll be asked to remove and dispose of the item. Passengers may also be directed back outside of security to remove items that should have originally been taken out and scanned separately in the first place. Once that hurdle is cleared, passengers will have to resubmit their property for X-ray screening. 

Yes, it sounds like a big hassle. Still, the TSA’s thinking is that if officers have to touch contents inside a carry-on bag much less frequently, then the potential for cross-contamination is greatly reduced.

One last thing in this department -- travelers are encouraged to remove items such as belts and items from their pockets, like wallets, keys and phones, and put them directly into their carry-on bags instead of into the bins to reduce touch-points during the screening process.

Practice social distancing. Like everyplace else, the security process at the airport will require social distancing to reduce direct contact between employees and travelers. The TSA has placed visual reminders on checkpoint floors to help out, but it wants travelers to know that no two airports are laid out the same. So things might look different in Detroit than, say, Denver. 

Wear facial protection. TSA officers at checkpoints are now using facial protection, and travelers are “encouraged” to wear face protection to the checkpoint. The TSA knows that passengers might have to adjust their masks during the screening process, and it’s ok with that. 

Other changes. Travelers who have not flown since the pandemic started might see some additional modifications. Here’s what the TSA says to expect: 

  • Reduced security lane usage due to the reduction in passenger volume.

  • All TSA officers at checkpoints are required to wear masks and gloves.

  • At some locations, TSA officers might also be wearing eye protection and clear plastic face shields.

  • TSA officers will continue the practice of changing gloves after each pat-down.

  • Plastic shielding installed at many travel document checking podiums, divest, bag search, and drop off locations.

  • TSA officers are practicing social distancing.

  • Frequently touched surfaces in the screening checkpoint area are getting routine cleaning and disinfecting.

Depending on local or state guidelines, airports and airlines may have changed things like check-in and boarding in response to the pandemic. The TSA encourages travelers flying for the first time in a while to get to the airport earlier than usual so they can scope out the situation and adjust to the pre-flight changes as best they can.

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