COVID-19: TSA Could Better Monitor Its Efforts to Reduce Infectious Disease Spread at Checkpoints
About 46,000 Transportation Security Officers closely interact with passengers when they screen them at U.S. airports.
To respond to COVID-19, the Transportation Security Administration took steps such as granting officers additional paid leave, and requiring them to use surgical masks and face shields and to physically distance from coworkers and passengers. TSA also changed how some screening technologies are used and is testing new technologies to prevent disease spread.
TSA could better monitor how these measures are being carried out and could identify common problems to help airports fix them. Our recommendations address these issues.
TSA is testing a standalone ultraviolet light bin disinfection system.
What GAO Found
To reduce the spread of COVID-19 at passenger checkpoints, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials issued amended safety measures to require that Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) use surgical masks and face shields, change gloves after pat-downs, and physically distance themselves from coworkers and passengers as practicable. TSA also adjusted some screening procedures, such as asking passengers to remove more items from carry-on baggage to reduce the potential for alarms that require bag searches. In addition, TSA modified the use of certain checkpoint screening technologies, and granted TSOs additional paid leave. In January 2021, TSA began an employee vaccination program, and is in the process of vaccinating TSA employees, including TSOs.
Transportation Security Officers (TSO) and Passengers at an Airport Screening Checkpoint during the COVID-19 Pandemic
TSA's monitoring and analysis of its measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is limited. For example, supervisors' operational checklists do not specifically include the revised COVID-19 procedures, and the data that TSO monitors collect (e.g., on whether TSOs are properly wearing masks or changing gloves) reflect implementation at a point in time rather than throughout a shift. Conducting more complete monitoring would help TSA ensure that its TSOs are properly implementing COVID-19 procedures. In addition, TSA field leadership analyzes available monitoring data for different subsets of airports to understand how COVID-19 procedures are being implemented. However, TSA headquarters officials said they had no plans at the time of our review to analyze this data across all airports nationwide to identify common implementation problems, such as incorrectly wearing face shields and challenges with maintaining physical distance. Analyzing monitoring data across all airports would help TSA identify and address any system-wide deficiencies in implementing COVID-19 procedures, so that it may better protect its workforce and the traveling public.
Why GAO Did This Study
Within TSA, approximately 46,000 TSOs stationed across the nation's commercial airports perform screening and other activities that often require close interaction with passengers. As a result, both passengers and TSOs may be at an increased risk of infection during pandemics such as COVID-19.
The CARES Act included a provision for GAO to conduct monitoring and oversight of the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report identifies 1) what steps TSA has taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19 at passenger screening checkpoints; and 2) how TSA is monitoring TSOs' implementation of amended safety and screening procedures, among other objectives.
GAO analyzed TSA data on TSOs' use of paid leave, reviewed documentation on policies and procedures, and interviewed TSA officials at headquarters and eight U.S. airports. We selected these airports to reflect diversity in the number of COVID-19 cases among TSOs, airport size, and geographic region. In addition, for six of these airports, GAO reviewed closed circuit television footage to observe how TSOs were implementing COVID-19 procedural changes.
GAO is recommending that TSA 1) take steps to strengthen monitoring of measures to reduce the spread of infectious diseases at passenger screening checkpoints and 2) analyze available data to identify patterns of success and failure in implementing COVID-19 measures across airports nationwide. TSA concurred with our recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Transportation Security Administration||The TSA Administrator should take steps to ensure more complete monitoring of TSO implementation of measures to reduce the spread of infectious diseases at screening checkpoints. (Recommendation 1)||
DHS concurred with this recommendation. In April 2022, TSA provided documentation of its efforts to address this recommendation. Specifically, TSA provided a revised Infection Control Monitor (ICM) checklist used at the passenger checkpoint to monitor adherence to COVID-19 protective measures and instructions to account for conditions at the checkpoint throughout the shift. TSA has also incorporated the ICM position and checklist and related instructions into its Incident Management Framework: Chemical/Biological and Pandemic Base Plan. For example, the plan requires TSA's Federal Security Directors at airports to implement the ICM locally, and report ICM checklist data into a central database for analysis, leadership awareness, and determination of corrective actions. Based on these actions, we consider this recommendation Closed-Implemented.
|Transportation Security Administration||The TSA Administrator should take steps to analyze available data related to the implementation of its COVID-19 measures to identify patterns of successes and failures across all airports, and use its findings to share lessons learned and remediate any deficiencies. (Recommendation 2)||
DHS concurred with this recommendation. In April 2022, TSA provided documentation demonstrating actions taken to address this recommendation. Specifically, TSA, in coordination with its Chief Medical Officer, developed a quarterly process to assess Infection Control Monitor (ICM)-related data and report related recommendations to TSA leadership. TSA completed its Fiscal Year 2021 Quarter Three COVID-19 Assessment Report, which included an analysis of ICM data and a discussion of successes and opportunities for improvement. It also includes 10 specific recommendations, which the TSA Administrator accepted. Further, TSA provided documentation of its analysis of ICM data across all airports, which also identified successes, deficiencies, other issues and recommendations. TSA briefed these results to TSA's Designated Occupational Safety and Health Officials (DOSHO) who are responsible for health and safety of airport workers. Based on the information provided, TSA has demonstrated that it has analyzed available COVID-19 data and shared lessons learned across TSA. Therefore, we consider this recommendation as Closed-Implemented.