Starting Tuesday, some travelers at Los Angeles International Airport will be asked to undergo a new screening process long before they get to security checkpoints: walking past cameras that can flag travelers with a fever, which is a sign of the novel coronavirus.
Officials on Monday planned to announce a pilot program to test the use of thermal imaging cameras at the departures entrance and the corridor for international arrivals in the airport’s Tom Bradley International Terminal.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure that our airport terminals are a safe environment, and we’re making sure that we’re doing everything we can to make it healthy for people to come in,” said Justin Erbacci, chief executive of Los Angeles World Airports.
Signs will direct travelers to walk through an area where cameras that detect whether someone has a temperature of 100.4 or higher are stationed. Those who show an elevated temperature will be pulled aside for a secondary screening to confirm. Participation will be voluntary, and the airport will not stop anyone from continuing with their journey during the pilot test — although workers will give advice from county and federal health officials about traveling with an elevated temperature.
Airlines that are doing their own temperature screening can still prohibit travelers from flying if they have fevers.
“Through this pilot, we are not going to stop anybody from traveling,” Erbacci said. “We want to test the accuracy of the technology and to understand if it is really able to capture accurate body temperatures of passengers en masse as they walk through this portal.”
During a launch event Monday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti urged travelers to opt in to the program, even though it is voluntary.
“Help us make sure we can find that model that will work to get people where they need to go and get them there safely without seeing covid-19 spread,” he said.
Similar technology has been used in airports in Asia since the SARS epidemic; during the coronavirus pandemic, workplaces, foreign airlines, resorts and other businesses have invested in thermal imaging as they sought the safest routes to reopening.
“Our ability to spot folks that are exhibiting covid symptoms, as we saw at the beginning of this pandemic, is so critical to stopping its spread, to ensuring that people can travel safely and that as borders reopen, whether they’re traveling in the United States or from and to the United States, that we can do our part to continue to bend the curve down,” Garcetti said.
Erbacci said the airport is trying to gather enough information from the pilot to put together a framework that can be shared across the industry. Using three types of cameras on loan, officials plan two six-week trials with input from agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, and county health officials.
TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in an email that the agency has no direct role in the pilot but had been well-informed by airport officials and would stay in close contact throughout.
Some U.S. airlines have urged the TSA to add temperature screenings to security checkpoints, but the agency said in a statement that no decision had been made about health screening measures at airports and that authorities would continue to rely on the health expertise of the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC.
The pilot is set up to follow guidelines from the Airports Council International and the International Air Transport Association that call for any type of temperature screening to happen early in the passenger process, minimize impact on operations and be conducted by professional medical staff.
Ty Osbaugh, the aviation leader at architecture firm Gensler, told The Washington Post last month that he would prefer to see health screening even before entering a terminal.
“If I’m looking around and I see someone who potentially has the virus and they’re going the whole way through until the security checkpoint, they’ve already had the opportunity to do damage to my health,” he said.
Still, the World Health Organization points out that such screening could miss travelers who are concealing fevers with medication or flag temperatures caused by illnesses other than the coronavirus.
The road map from the airports and air transport groups points out that temperature checks have not proved to be completely effective in “delaying or mitigating a pandemic” because, in part, they can’t identify people who aren’t showing symptoms.
“We acknowledge, however, that these measures can play a useful role in reassuring the traveling public and act as a deterrent for travel in case of suspicion of infection,” the guidelines say.
Erbacci acknowledged that temperature checks don’t guarantee that a traveler isn’t infected, but he said the airport is trying to come up with multiple solutions to keep travelers safe and make them feel comfortable. LAX also requires face masks and social distancing, and has introduced more enhanced cleaning and contact-free technology.
“It’s not meant to be the be-all and end-all, we recognize it’s not that,” he said. “But it’s one piece of the puzzle and one layer of protection that we have in addition to all the other things we’re doing.”