Air travel under attack by omicron

The omicron variant is attacking air travel. Airlines, airport security and passengers are all in the crosshairs of the COVID-19 variant. 

During the Christmas weekend, over 6,000 flight cancellations occurred due to airlines not having sufficient staff and personnel to service their flights. Recall that the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association warned of flight disruptions during the holiday season if vaccine mandates applied to their pilots. Ironically, the vaccines did not create the recent flight disruption havoc, but rather, infections themselves. This highlights how empty threats based on misinformation exposed what has proven to be a weak position. 

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints have become a fertile hotspot for infections. The number of TSA screeners infected over the past two weeks has soared, reaching 1,147 active cases on Monday, an increase of 60 percent over the holiday weekend. This total represents over 2 percent of their screening workforce. Such a surge in infections is in spite of the tremendous precautions available to them, including face coverings, eye shields and numerous plastic barriers that protect them from flyers passing through security checkpoints.   

The federal face mask mandate on airplanes and in terminals has provided a layer of protection to reduce virus transmission. However, omicron’s high level of contagiousness has made cloth face masks less effective, forcing people to invest in high-quality face masks that are approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, assuming they are even available. 

The safest part of an air travel excursion is the flight itself. Airplane cabin high performance filtration systems provide quality air circulation for everyone on a flight. However, any time one person removes their face mask to eat or drink, they are exposing themselves and others to virus transmission risk. Face masks provide protection, but only when they are used correctly and consistently remain in place.  

The riskiest part of a trip is at the airports, particularly prior to boarding in the terminal and waiting on a jet bridge. It is during these times, when physical spacing is difficult and air circulation is limited, that high quality face masks offer the more reliable layer of protection.           

December is poised to be the busiest air travel month since the pandemic began. At the same time, the number of COVID-19 cases in the country is approaching numbers last seen during the January 2021 peak. These numbers are also certain to significantly undercount the actual number of infections, given that many people are now relying on at-home test kits to determine whether they have COVID-19. 

Omicron has changed the risk calculus of air travel. Does this mean that air travel should be avoided? 

Not necessarily. Understanding the risk environment can help people make informed decisions. 

The good news is that given the rapid surge in omicron infections and the recent events in South Africa, it is also reasonable to expect a rapid decline. Moreover, the overwhelming growth in cases has yet to lead to a comparable surge in deaths. This is largely due to over 72 percent of the adult population having received two vaccine doses.  The vaccines have created headwinds for omicron infections to translate into deaths. Nonetheless, over 35 million adults remain completely unvaccinated, relying on prior infections or other remedies to protect them. 

The beginning of each year is traditionally a low air travel period. This will relieve some of the COVID-19 risk pressure on the air system.   

Air travel is a beacon of economic prosperity and social wellbeing. Not even omicron can change that. What the recent events around the holiday season have taught us is that omicron’s impact on the air system is emblematic of omicron’s status across the nation. Simply watching the rise and fall of cases amongst TSA screeners is a reasonable surrogate for infections nationwide. 

Omicron is having its way with the air travel system. The good news is that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer, bringing a tinge of optimism for 2022.         

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public health policy. He has researched aviation security systems since 1995. His research provided the technical foundations for TSA PreCheck. 

Editor’s Note: The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) disputes that TSA checkpoints are “fertile hotspots for infection” and states TSA officer infection rates are consistent with community infection rates in the communities where they live.

Tags air travel Airports Coronavirus COVID-19 omicron Pandemic Sheldon H. Jacobson travel

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