By Alison Sider and Michelle Hackman
Airports from New York to Los Angeles, in some cases with help from airlines, are trying out ways to take passengers' temperatures before they fly, after the government's plans for a national program have lost momentum.
Temperature checks at airports aren't a panacea, and some passengers might find them intrusive. But officials at airlines and airports view temperature scans as a key part of their efforts to prevent infection and restore confidence in flying after the coronavirus pandemic decimated travel demand.
The number of passengers streaming through airports remains down some 70% from a year ago. Many Americans simply have nowhere to go, with vacations and business trips called off; others have been deterred by government restrictions on travel. But surveys indicate that many also perceive flying to be a serious health risk, despite the industry's efforts to persuade them otherwise.
Airlines, airports and the government have been deadlocked for months over who -- if anyone -- should take on the role of checking travelers' temperatures. Airlines and airports have held that it is the government's job. Airlines have been lobbying since the spring for the Transportation Security Administration to coordinate screenings.
A Trump administration plan to try incorporating temperature scans into the security screening process at about a dozen airports around the country stalled in May, as the agencies that would have overseen the checks raised questions about their practicality and usefulness.
A number of airports now say they are taking matters into their own hands.
"We didn't want to wait," said Justin Erbacci, chief executive of Los Angeles World Airports, which runs Los Angeles International Airport.
The airport in June began using thermal cameras to identify people with elevated temperatures as they enter the international terminal. It has since expanded the trial to another terminal with help from Delta Air Lines Inc.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport went ahead with its own 14-day trial program this summer. The private operator of John F. Kennedy International Airport's busiest terminal ran a test of thermal imaging technology in August.
Some experts say temperature screenings aren't effective and might provide a false sense of security, because travelers could be asymptomatic carriers of the new coronavirus, or could be infected and not showing symptoms yet. A U.K. study released in February estimated that temperature screening at airport entries and exits would catch less than half of infected travelers.
Katie Gostic, a University of Chicago epidemiologist who has studied the effectiveness of temperature scans at airports, said the infrared temperature scanners most often used in temp scans detect fevers about 70% of the time. More importantly, she said, infected passengers are much more likely to fly before they start showing symptoms.
"Once you feel terrible, you're not going to try and get on a plane," she said.
Temperature checks have become standard at entry points to many offices, schools and even hair salons in the U.S. Screenings are also relatively common at airports abroad, begun in response to the severe acute respiratory syndrome -- or SARS -- pandemic in the early 2000s. The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority this summer began conducting temperature screening. London's Heathrow Airport is trialing it, and several European airlines have started requiring preboarding scans.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. initially recommended temperature scans for detecting Covid-19, the disease caused by the new virus, but concerns arose as more evidence became available showing as many as half of infected individuals don't run fevers, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The TSA looked into the mechanics of performing the checks, but some questions were never fully resolved -- for example, who would determine whether a person with a high fever had some other medical condition or would be allowed to fly, according to people familiar with the matter.
After initial enthusiasm for the measure, the White House cooled on airport temperature checks as the administration made a strategic decision to shift focus away from the pandemic, according to people familiar with the matter.
In a set of guidelines for the travel industry, a consortium of federal agencies acknowledged that some airports and airlines might want to conduct temperature scans, but raised similar concerns about the checks' usefulness.
Airlines and airports acknowledge that temperature scans -- like plexiglass barriers and uniformed cleaning crews -- are in part meant as visible safety measures that can help set passengers' minds at ease. Airlines have been adjusting their protocols for cleaning, social distancing and mask requirements throughout the summer as they desperately tried to get passengers flying again. United Airlines Holdings Inc. announced Sunday that it would permanently eliminate flight-change fees for most domestic tickets, a move that takes away one of the main incentives for people who are sick to try and travel anyway.
Rapid Covid-19 testing at airports might do even more to allay passengers' fears. Several airports around the world offer or require tests for arriving passengers. Now, with the development of new tests that can offer results before passengers board flights, some are starting to make tests available to departing passengers as well.
San Francisco International Airport has a rapid-testing facility in its international terminal for employees and hopes to eventually provide tests for passengers too. Fliers at JFK and Newark Liberty International Airport can get tested at XpresCheck, part of the XpresSpa airport massage and manicure chain, and the locations plan to roll out rapid 15-minute tests in September.
Frontier Airlines since June has been taking passengers' temperatures and barring anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in multiple checks from boarding flights. Other carriers ask passengers a series of health questions at check-in.
LAX's Mr. Erbacci said individual temperature checks with hand-held cameras could lead to long lines, so the airport opted for walk-by scans with thermal cameras, which passengers can bypass if they wish.
Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids has been seeking approval for its program from the Federal Aviation Administration, which has cautioned airports against using their own resources for health screening programs, such as temperature checks.
The airport's plan calls for health-care professionals from a local hospital to conduct the screenings, including a follow-up check with a nurse or doctor via telehealth technology to determine whether another condition, such as allergies or an ear infection, could be the cause of a fever.
Because the airport is small, the program is feasible. "It's not a model that works for all airports," said Marty Lenss, the airport's director.
Some airlines haven't given up trying to persuade the government to take on the task.
Southwest Airlines Co. is working on a temperature-scanning program at Dallas Love Field Airport and aims to start screening customers next month, an effort Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said was launched for "the sole purpose of trying to demonstrate to the TSA the efficacy of the process."
Write to Alison Sider at firstname.lastname@example.org and Michelle Hackman at Michelle.Hackman@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 31, 2020 08:32 ET (12:32 GMT)Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.