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Airlines Are Getting Help From The TSA To Reassure Travelers That It's Safe To Fly


The nation's top health officials are criticizing some airlines for filling planes to capacity in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. At a Senate hearing today, CDC Director Robert Redfield said that decisions by United and American Airlines to sell every seat on some planes is, quote, "disappointing and sends the wrong message." The airlines insist they are taking steps to keep travelers safe from the virus, and with the Fourth of July holiday approaching, they are getting help from the TSA. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: For a couple of months, cavernous airport terminals and concourses were nearly empty, most of the restaurants and shops closed, and you'd only see a handful of people waiting for flights. But airports are now busier than at any time since mid-March. The TSA says more than 600,000 passengers went through airport security checkpoints on Sunday. Planes are getting fuller, too. And the reality is, there's only so much physical distance you can put between people on a commercial airliner, says Nick Calio of the industry group Airlines for America.

NICK CALIO: You can't employee distancing on an airplane like you can in a grocery store line.

SCHAPER: Even with middle seats blocked out, passengers are still sitting less than three feet apart, ignoring the CDC's recommendation of six feet. So Calio says airlines are taking extraordinary measures to keep passengers safe from the spread of the coronavirus - things like electrostatic fogging to disinfect the aircraft interiors and hospital-grade air filtration systems and requiring passengers to wear face coverings or masks. So whether passengers are spaced out around the aircraft or crammed into every tiny seat, Calio insists they're protected.

CALIO: I can't speak for American or United, but we don't fly people if we feel it's not safe to fly them.

SCHAPER: The air carrier's lobbying group says member airlines will also start conducting passenger health assessments, looking for COVID-19 symptoms, but they'd prefer that the federal government did that. They want the TSA to check all crew members' and passengers' temperatures at security checkpoints. Again, Nick Calio of Airlines for America.

CALIO: It's something that we have been requesting. We believe it would be a good idea. We do believe it's a government function.

SCHAPER: TSA administrator David Pekoske says while screening every airline passenger for a fever is under consideration by the administration, he's not so sure it would do much good, in part because it might not catch people who have the coronavirus but are not symptomatic.

DAVID PEKOSKE: Temperature checks are not a guarantee that passengers who don't have an elevated temperature also don't have COVID-19.

SCHAPER: And while airlines are requiring passengers and employees to wear face masks, there is no federal mandate to do so, so airlines are left to enforce that on their own. Sara Nelson, who heads the Association of Flight Attendants, says that's part of a broader problem with the federal pandemic response.

SARA NELSON: Without federal intervention and a coordinated effort to address these issues, we're left to the airlines putting in place policies that are inconsistent, leave people confused and leave us to deal with the consequences on the front lines.

SCHAPER: And that could be part of the reason many people aren't ready yet to get back on planes. Even with the recent jump, air travel demand is still down a whopping 75% from last year. As recent surveys show, a majority of would-be travelers may not want to fly again until sometime next year.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRYSTAL BOY'S "MAGNETIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.