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LAX will try thermal cameras to spot travelers with COVID-19

Hugo Martín, Dakota Smith
Three thermal cameras will be used to scan streams of passengers arriving at and departing from LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal in hopes of spotting passengers with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher. Above, a woman at the airport points at an image from a thermal camera.  (Los Angeles World Airports )

Hoping to make flying safer, Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday will begin testing thermal cameras to identify passengers with high body temperatures as a way of slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

The three cameras will scan streams of passengers arriving at and departing from the Tom Bradley International Terminal in hopes of spotting passengers with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher — a common symptom in the COVID-19 pandemic that has pushed air travel demand down to the lowest levels in decades.

"Our ability to spot folks exhibiting COVID[-19] symptoms, as we saw at the beginning of this pandemic, is so critical to stopping its spread and ensuring that people can travel safely," Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a news conference from the terminal.

Temperature checks are not a silver bullet: Health experts say people can spread the virus while showing few or no symptoms. Nor should temperature checks be the lone precaution. Other health protocols added at the airport include requirements that travelers wear masks and maintain physical distance from one another whenever possible, and LAX has installed 250 hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the terminals.

Airports around the world have been turning to technology to help slow the spread of the virus. In addition to thermal cameras, airports are testing sanitation booths, autonomous cleaning robots and other gadgets in hopes of making air travel safer while reducing the risk of exposing airport staff to the disease.

LAX, one of the world's busiest airports, plans to operate the cameras for 12 weeks to test the effectiveness of the technology and evaluate staffers' procedures before deciding whether to expand the use of the cameras to other terminals. Unlike hand-held no-contact thermometers, the thermal cameras can gauge the temperatures of several people at the same time, even as the people move.

Under the LAX program, passengers heading toward departing flights who have a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher will be pulled aside and tested again by a medical technician or an assistant with a hand-held thermometer; if the second check confirms the high temperature, they will be advised to not travel — but not prevented from traveling. Arriving international passengers who are identified as having a high temperature will be directed to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff for possible quarantine.

LAX is paying for the medical professionals from a reserve fund not to exceed $150,000 during the pilot program, with plans to seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to LAX officials. LAX is not being charged by the developers and operators of the cameras for the use of the technology during the testing period.

The screening of passengers departing LAX is voluntary, and those travelers can avoid the cameras by taking one of several entrances into the terminal. The CDC, however, requires temperature screening for passengers arriving from certain countries, such as China and Iran.