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The Latest TSA Security Procedures During the COVID-19 Pandemic

You’ll need a mask, and patience, when passing through airport screenings this winter

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers screen passengers at O'Hare International Airport

Scott Olson/Getty Images

En español | The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) continues to use a range of procedures to keep contact to a minimum for both TSA agents and fliers who go through security screening as the pandemic continues.

But it’s also asking the public for patience, courtesy and compliance due to the combination of staff shortages and a growing number of passengers passing through security this winter; the number of airline passengers screened by the TSA each day has risen substantially in the past few months — more than 1.9 million people passed through airport security on Dec. 13, for example. That’s nearing the approximately 2.25 million who did so on Dec. 13, 2019, and a huge leap from the 752,000 who flew on Dec. 13, 2020.

With the holiday season upon us, TSA Administrator David Pekoski said in a recent statement that travelers should “plan ahead, remain vigilant and practice kindness.”

TSA and other officials are increasingly concerned about traveler behavior, during screening and in the air. The airline industry is calling for more serious prosecution of the growing number of passengers who are disruptive, sometimes violently. Since the middle of January 2021 through Dec.7, there have been more than 5,550 reports of unruly passengers, at times involving physical assault, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Those include nearly 4,000 incidents related to passengers’ compliance with the federal face mask mandate. (The FAA has a new online video featuring children instructing adults on how to behave maturely.)

By law, passengers over the age of 2 must wear a face mask in the airport and on the plane, at least through March 18, 2022. Those who fail to comply will be prevented from entering the screening area, and subject to fines, which the federal government recently doubled (fines now range from $500 to up to $3,000 for repeat offenses).  

The TSA screening officer at the travel document checker station will likely ask you to briefly lower your face mask to verify your identity.

TSA officers will also be wearing masks and gloves (they’ll change them after any passenger pat-downs), and the agency has installed acrylic barriers between officers and travelers in some cases. It has also embraced new technology that prevents agents from having to touch bags; the computed tomography (CT) units can provide detailed 3-D images of a carry-on bag’s contents.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the TSA has had 11,518 federal employees test positive for COVID-19, and 33 have died after contracting the virus.

For a smooth and safe screening process, follow the TSA’s current protocols.

1. Arrive at the airport early to make sure there’s sufficient time to make your flight in case lines are long due to increased passenger volume and TSA staffing shortages. You’re encouraged to sign up for TSA PreCheck®, which allows for speedier passage through screening (you don’t need to take off your shoes and belt, and you can leave liquids and laptops in your carry-on). Note that those 75 and older can leave on their shoes and light jacket during screening, even without PreCheck.

2. Organize your personal items before screening. Remove your belt, keys and other items from your pockets and put them in your carry-on bag before lining up for screening. (This does not apply to TSA PreCheck members.)

3. TSA officials no longer physically handle boarding passes, so place your paper or electronic pass on the code reader and hold it for the officer to inspect. Again, the agent may ask you to briefly lower your mask to confirm your identity.

4. If you’re bringing food, it may need to be inspected, although in most cases, the TSA says, “food or snacks such as fruit, health bars and sandwiches can stay inside your carry-on bag,” as can cakes and other baked goods. Consider putting them in a clear plastic bag so a TSA officer can see the contents clearly. The agency notes that foods such as gravy and cranberry sauce should be packed in a checked bag because they are not solids (TSA guidance: “If you can spill it, spray it, pump it or pour it, then it’s not a solid”). Ask the TSA officer if you are unsure. 


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5. Up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer is permitted through security, but the TSA asks that it be removed from carry-on bags before screening. You can also bring alcohol wipes or antibacterial wipes in carry-on bags.

6. Personal electronic devices larger than a cellphone need to be removed from your carry-on bag and placed in a bin with nothing on or under them for X-ray screening.

7. Practice physical distancing whenever possible. Floor markers indicate appropriate 6-foot spacing between those waiting in line, and many reminders are posted.

8. The TSA will accept a driver’s license or state-issued ID up to a year after expiration for those who have been unable to renew them during the pandemic. Note that you now have until May 3, 2023, to acquire a security-enhanced Real ID instead of a regular driver’s license in order to get through airport security. The deadline was recently delayed from Oct. 1, 2021.

9. Passengers are asked to remain aware of and to report suspicious activities (“If You See Something, Say Something,” is the motto of the public-safety campaign). Find out more at the Department of Homeland Security website.

10. Ask for help. If you have any questions about the procedures, you can call the TSA’s customer service center at 866-289-9673, or get in touch through Twitter (@AskTSA) or Ask TSA on Facebook. If you require assistance because of medical or disability issues, contact TSA Cares at least 72 hours in advance of your flight at 855-787-2227.

A few more tips to make air travel easier for yourself and others:

  • Make sure you know the correct terminal that your flight will be departing from; you don’t want to waste time by getting dropped off at the wrong one.
  • Wear socks and shoes without laces, if you know you will need to take your shoes off at security.  
  • Have your boarding pass pulled up on your phone and your ID ready before you reach the checkpoint.
  • Remember that you can only bring one carry-on bag and one personal item on most flights. A personal item is something like a purse or laptop bag that can fit under the seat in front of you.  
  • Again, be nice. Many people are tense when they travel, and TSA and airline staff are facing their own stresses. Try to keep this in mind, and go with the flow as much as possible. And have a great trip!

Editor's note: This article was originally published on May 21, 2020. It's been updated to reflect new TSA procedures.

Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing. 

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