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Mask mandate on airplanes: Right idea with wrong implementation

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President Biden’s executive order requiring face coverings on commercial air travel, based on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notice, is designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within the nation’s air transportation system. 

Asymptomatic transmission accounts for over one-half of all new infections. Face coverings provide the best method to reduce such transmissions, particularly when physical distancing is infeasible. Unfortunately, Biden’s order is unnecessary and may make air travel less secure.   

Airlines have been requiring passengers to wear face covering for several months. Those who have defy such requirements are placed on no-fly lists, now totaling over 2,700 people. The new order mandates face coverings in all areas of the air system, including airport security checkpoints, throughout airport concourses and on commercial flights, which is already widely occurring.   

Like any mandated requirement, enforcement and practical implementation are the weak links. The order indicates that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will be responsible for enforcement. This adds yet another burden of responsibility for TSA officers, creating opportunities for distraction from executing their primary role, which is to maintain the security of the air system from malicious activity. To date, over 6,500 TSA officers have tested positive for COVID-19, with 15 deaths, despite all the health precautions taken, including face coverings and face shields.

Practical implementation is another problem with the order because of the plethora of exceptions. The biggest challenge with face coverings is not being able to wear them while eating or drinking. Food concessions at airports, particularly those with seating, will quickly become a refuge for people to avoid wearing their face coverings. Even if such establishments stop seated food service, people will likely congregate across the rest of the airport concourses while eating and drinking, creating pockets with elevated virus transmission risk opportunities.   

The order also dictates face covering requirements, including their material and how they should be worn. Once again, with 500,000 to over 1 million people now traveling by air every day in the U.S., managing compliance with such a level of detail will be cumbersome at best and impractical at worst.   

If the face covering order is to be enforced, dedicated people at airports are how to ensure adherence. Large hub airports like Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport are too large and diverse to place the burden of enforcement on the TSA and airline personnel. Such enforcement officers should be located across the airport footprint, including airport parking areas, check-in areas, prior to and directly after airport security checkpoints and throughout airport concourses. Given the high unemployment rate, this will also get people back to work. Asking airline and TSA employees to serve as the primary enforcement officers will not work.    

The order has a defined end date in May 2021, but in reality, face coverings are needed throughout society for many months, not weeks. Even with everyone vaccinated, no vaccine is 100 percent protective. Moreover, it is expected to take at least six months before everyone can be immunized. This means that extending the order will likely become a lightning rod of controversy every time such actions are taken.      

The biggest challenge with the face covering order is the sizable fraction of the population that continues to believe that COVID-19 is not a public health threat and, by extension, face coverings are unnecessary. This seed of discontent continues to provide headwinds that our nation has struggled with since the pandemic began.    

The face covering order makes sense. The question is whether it provides any more public health value than what the airlines have already achieved with their own requirements? The answer is no, with this becoming apparent in the weeks ahead.   

Sheldon H. Jacobson, PhD, is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research on risk-based security provided the foundational concepts that led to TSA PreCheck. 

Tags air travel Airlines biden executive orders CDC Coronavirus COVID-19 face coverings federal mask mandate Joe Biden mask mandate Pandemic transmission rate TSA

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