WASHINGTON - As the airline industry awaits a return to normal for travel, the Transportation Security Administration wants to add another layer of protection for passengers against COVID-19.
On Tuesday, the agency unveiled new technology that uses ultraviolet lighting to disinfect airport bins at security checkpoints in hopes of preventing the spread of the coronavirus and other viruses.
TSA’s Innovation Task Force is spearheading the effort. Director J. Matt Gilkeson said TSA agents will run the empty bins through the machine after each passenger use.
"So the officers just put a bin through the tunnel," Gilkeson told FOX Television Stations Tuesday. "The light exposure provides the dosage required to be able to deactivate the coronavirus and then the bins come out clean ready to go back to the front of the checkpoint."
A test program is underway with two machines at two checkpoints at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. One machine requires bins to be placed face-up. The other one requires bins to be placed face-down.
Gilkeson said the machines will be at the airport for about 45 days as the task force evaluates their use and effectiveness. He said it’s too early to determine when the technology will become widely available at airports across the country.
TSA officials say the new safety measure won’t have an impact on passenger screening times at airports.
"TSA continuously tests and deploys innovative technologies into operational checkpoint environments that seek to improve the checkpoint experience for airline passengers," TSA Federal Security Director Scott T. Johnson said. "We are excited to test technologies that might prove effective in disinfecting checkpoint bins and eventually provide another layer of protection against viral and bacterial spread."
The task force thought of the technology last year while coming up with ways to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and other future public health crises.
The TSA screened more than 1.3 million people both Friday and Sunday, setting a new high since the coronavirus outbreak devastated travel a year ago. Airlines say they believe the numbers are heading up, with more people booking flights for spring and summer.
While the number of people passing through airport checkpoints has topped 1 million for four straight days and the seven-day rolling average is the highest in the pandemic era, passenger traffic is still down more than 50% in March compared with the same period in 2019.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to ease travel restriction due to the growing concern of COVID-19 variants and the country not yet reaching its goal of herd immunity with the vaccines. More than 39 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, nearly 12% of the total U.S. population, according to the CDC.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.