Airport security in a post-COVID-19 world

Airport security in a post-COVID-19 world
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Dozens of Transportation Security Administration Officers (TSOs) have tested positive for the coronavirus, creating a two-way transmission highway between screeners and passengers, further spreading the virus. This has occurred while the number of air travelers has dropped by more than 95 percent since early March.

As we move through the darkest weeks of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, visions of a post-COVID-19 world are emerging. Artificially suppressed air travel volume may increase to as much as 50 percent of the pre-coronavirus period, as economic activity returns, resulting in more congested airport security checkpoints, with more travelers and more TSA screeners to oversee them.  

However, virus mitigation protocols like social distancing will need to continue to avert resurgences of the coronavirus and pockets of outbreaks, particularly in urban areas where hub airports reside. Until a safe and effective vaccine is developed, which may take as much as 18 months, this will be the new normal. Unfortunately, airport security and social distancing are incompatible.  

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How can the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) modify airport security protocols without comprising their mission to protect the nation’s air system? Incremental modifications to procedures are essential.

TSA procedures to protect the air system right now employ passenger physical screening as the primary component at airports. However, physical screening is a person-to-person intensive process between passengers and TSOs. First, TSOs must verify and validate each passenger's identity. Then passengers undergo primary screening where they divest their belongings (their carry-on baggage, as well as shoes and outer garments) for x-ray screening prior to standing in a full body scanner for physical screening. Passengers then recompose their belongings and proceed to their boarding gate. Alarms during primary screening result in additional secondary screening. Numerous virus transmission touchpoints between TSOs and passengers place both groups at risk for infection.

Implementing policies like permitting 12-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer in carry-on baggage and permitting passengers to wear face masks have been put into place and are helpful. The solution we’re seeing is to systematically transform the pool of travelers and the manner in which airport screening can be conducted without compromising the integrity of the screening process.

Passenger identity validation draws TSOs and passengers together in close proximity. Biometric identity verification, similar to Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI and CLEAR is long overdue for the majority of passengers. The first step is to facilitate all travelers enrolled in any of these programs to use their membership for identity validation at airport security checkpoints. This can be done by the Department of Homeland Security working with CLEAR to enroll all such travelers, at no cost to the travelers. In addition, once biometric identity has been confirmed, such travelers will be subjected to no additional screening, similar to flight crew screening. 

PreCheck passengers will be subjected to the same expedited screening. In addition, the TSA should reintroduce managed inclusion, which allows TSOs to direct some non-PreCheck passengers into the PreCheck lanes. The net effect of this screening protocol change is less time in the security checkpoint areas and less touch points with TSOs. With total passenger screening times reduced, passengers can be more widely spaced when waiting in security lines, while maintaining reasonable passenger waiting times. This effectively suppresses, but does not eliminate the TSO-passenger transmission highway.  

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Such changes will marginally increase the risk to the air system. This must be weighed against the reduction in coronavirus transmission at airport security checkpoints and the associated suppression of coronavirus transmission within the air travel system. The key point is reducing TSO, passenger touchpoints, and in the long run, increasing the number of PreCheck screenings.    

How can this be done? The TSA should offer the program at no cost, or minimal cost — say $25 for five years — to any person who travels three or more times per year, including access to biometric identity verification. A study conducted at the University of Illinois showed that such a program would be cost neutral to the federal government, while enhancing the security of the air system. An added benefit is that it would reduce coronavirus transmission as we transition into a post-COVID-19 world of air travel. 

Sheldon H. Jacobson 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. He is also an active member of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS).