Professor Sheldon Jacobson on reducing Covid risks at airports

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Mitigating Covid-19 transmission risks aboard aircraft has been a major focal point during the current crisis. But before passengers even reach their gates, they have to navigate often crowded TSA security checkpoints. When stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions begin to lift, concerns about social distancing are likely to continue for a period. Aviation editor Robert Silk spoke with Sheldon Jacobson, a University of Illinois computer science professor whose research has included the foundational analysis of what became the TSA PreCheck program, about what can be done to reduce checkpoint risks.

Sheldon Jacobson
Sheldon Jacobson

Q: TSA checkpoints are frequently crowded. But there are also other reasons why they are especially conducive to transmitting a virus like Covid-19, right?

A: If you look at the footprint of the security lines, social distancing is not compatible with aviation security at all. They just don't fit together, because you're bringing people together in lines to go through a point where you have to take items out of your bag. You have to use bins to put these items in. You're in constant contact with transportation security officers. There are so many touchpoints that are less than 6 feet apart that the risk both to the TSA officers and to the passengers is great.

Q: You mentioned TSA agents. Close to 400 department employees have already contracted the virus. Is there a way to make TSA checkpoints somewhat more compatible with social distancing?

A: The solution already exists. When you go through a security checkpoint, you have your identification checked. That is a very human-intensive interaction. The only exception to that are the Clear lanes, which use biometrics. What we need to do is transition to an automated ID system using biometrics. People who have Global Entry or Nexus or Sentri already have that information in their cards. Putting the technology in place at airports to reduce the interactions between officers and passengers is a first step.

Q: So you would recommend that Global Entry members go through security in a similar fashion that Clear members currently do?

A: It would be very similar. With Global Entry, when you come into the country, you look at a screen, it reads your iris, it gives you a ticket, and literally, you don't need any human contact. We have over 450 commercial airports in the United States. But if you chose the 30 or 40 or 50 largest airports, you will then be covering 80% to 90% of the travelers as they enter in the secured air system.

Q: Only a small portion of travelers have Global Entry, though. What else should be done to reduce checkpoint crowding in the nearer term?

A: What's already there is PreCheck. And if we look at the procedures between PreCheck and non-PreCheck, there are a lot fewer touchpoints plus reduced time to get through security; that could be exploited. I wrote an article a couple years ago arguing that the federal government should offer PreCheck at no cost to any traveler who travels three or more times per year. That would reduce touchpoints, reduce transmission and make it safer for travelers to get through the security checkpoint. It would not cost the government anything because the cost of providing PreCheck status would be weighed against the savings at the airports in reduced TSA officers and machinery and equipment and technology.  

Q: But that still leaves all the travelers who haven't been vetted for PreCheck.

A: In the short run, one of the things they could do is limit travel only to people who are TSA PreCheck qualified. Over the next month or six weeks, it will be necessary. After that, we have to rethink this process to ramp up as many people as possible. So, it's conceivable that within four to six months we can have many more people in PreCheck, which means that the configuration and the use of the footprint of security lines will transform. You'll have many more PreCheck lanes. You can space the people more. But since they spend less time in the security process, that spacing will not have as much of an impact on the total time people wait. Because the regular process is so touchpoint-intensive, if you space the people, the delays will end up being in the hours.

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