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Ready for takeoff: Three simple guidelines for flying after vaccination

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The coronavirus vaccine rollout is well underway and many Americans are growing more confident, hoping to plan their first trip using air transportation in more than a year. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 global health crisis, air travel has plummeted by 95 percent. Its lowest point was in April 2020. Air travel has somewhat bounced back since then with approximately 700,000 air passengers going through security checkpoints every day in U.S. airports. That’s down though from 2 million per day this time last year.

With more Americans being immunized for the coronavirus and more people starting to consider air travel, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the airlines need to be ready to safely accommodate a higher number of air travelers ready to return to the skies.

The future of air travel will not and should not look like it did in the past. Federal policymakers should follow this blueprint to prepare for a future with increased air travel based on principles from analytics and industrial engineering. 

First, so-called immunization cards or immunity passports should not be used, at least not in the coming year. With no standard immunization card format and thousands of health care providers in the U.S., immunization cards would be cumbersome and inefficient. They could result in long lines and crowding at airport check-in counters and they would almost certainly encourage the proliferation of fraudulent cards. Many travelers have already faked coronavirus test results, which suggests immunization cards would be of questionable value. Additionally, immunization cards would make air travel inequitable. Immunizations have not been evenly distributed throughout the world, with nearly all immunizations having been allocated to wealthy nations thus far. 

In the long run, immunization cards could be a reality as national and international standards are developed to streamline verification at the airport and to reduce fraud. The development of the REAL ID highlights the importance of federal standards in air travel records and provides a template for developing immunization credentials. The Real ID Act required the federal government to set standards for identification used for traveling and eventually all states issued driver’s licenses that follow the REAL ID format to use for air travel. The REAL ID could potentially be expanded to include coronavirus vaccination information, such as the dates of immunization.

Second, the airport experience needs to be reimagined to protect air travelers, airline employees and TSA agents. After two decades of improved security measures, airports have become considerably more secure. These security measures have resulted in more congestion and crowding at security checkpoints that introduce health risks for travelers and TSA agents.

We can improve both security and protective health measures by expanding expedited screening in TSA PreCheck lanes. PreCheck requires reregistration every five years — the TSA should explore financial incentives to enroll new, low-risk passengers in PreCheck or to keep PreCheck enrolled travelers from allowing their memberships to lapse. This would likely result in enormous reductions in staffing costs since fewer TSA agents would be required to operate PreCheck lanes. 

Upgrading PreCheck lanes to rely on biometrics would eliminate the need for its labor-intensive screening, reduce staffing costs and lessen hassles for travelers. Cutting edge biometric technologies would upgrade security while also shortening PreCheck queues and reducing crowding, thus adding a protective layer for PreCheck enrolled travelers and TSA agents. 

Third, air travelers need better quality masks, immediately. Immunization will not eliminate the need for face coverings. Some air travelers will not be vaccinated for years to come and some who have been immunized may be able to transmit the virus. Face masks can mitigate the risks associated with long flights. While every air traveler should wear an N95 mask, this is not currently possible given the shortages. But there is a potential solution that is almost as effective. Instead of merely requiring a face mask to be worn while flying, as mandated in President Biden’s recent executive order, specifications for face masks can be required in airports and on airplanes until it is possible to hand each air passenger an N95 mask. Face masks for flying should be fitted, have at least two cloth layers, not contain vents and have one non-woven layer. A polypropylene filter inside a fitted cloth mask or double-masking, with a cloth mask over a surgical mask would better protect air travelers on airplanes. 

The TSA has taken several steps to improve health and safety during the COVID-19 global health crisis. They have adopted several common sense strategies and while this is a great start, bigger strides must be made as travelers start flying.

It will take years until all air travelers are immunized, but we do not have to wait years until it is safe to fly.  

Dr. Laura A. Albert is a professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Engineering and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is a prominent member of INFORMS. Her research applies optimization and analytical methods to public sector applications including aviation security.

Tags air travel air travelers Airlines Biden executive order coronavirus crisis COVID-19 face coverings flyers Joe Biden N95 masks Pandemic travelers TSA TSA agents TSA PreCheck

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