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Sheldon H. Jacobson column: TSA is the wrong agency for enforcing the federal mask mandate at airports
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Rules and Revenue

Sheldon H. Jacobson column: TSA is the wrong agency for enforcing the federal mask mandate at airports

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By Sheldon H. Jacobson

Anyone who has flown over the past year knows that face coverings are required in airports and on commercial flights. This has become the standard for air travel. Yet a mandate is only as good as its compliance and enforcement.

Forbes recently reported that the Transportation Security Administration has fined fewer than 1% of those reported to be noncompliant. The TSA even increased the fine for violators in September as a deterrent to those unwilling to comply.

But is the TSA the right agency to enforce the mandate? The short answer is no, but it’s not that simple. It’s important to fully understand and appreciate the spectrum of security responsibilities already placed on the TSA before adding to it. It also requires one to look more closely at the profile of face-covering violators.

I’m a computer science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and my research focuses on collecting and analyzing data. I also have researched aviation security for more than 25 years. During a recent rain delay at one of the Chicago airports, I decided to collect data on how people at the airport were wearing their face coverings. Positioning myself at a single point in a concourse eliminated double-counting people and kept me away from eating establishments where masks are routinely removed. Only adults were included in my data collection exercise.

Around 85% to 90% of the people were fully compliant, wearing a face covering correctly over the mouth and nose. The range reflects a measure of uncertainty, given the limited number of data points collected. The split between men and women was fairly even.

Around 10% to 14% were wearing a face covering, but it did not cover their nose. The remaining 1% to 2% wore no face covering, including those who tied it around their neck like a bandanna.

Of those who wore their face covering without covering their nose, or were not wearing any face covering, around 75% to 80% were men.

The good news from this data collection exercise is that the majority of people are following the federal mandate. For those who are not compliant, men are the most prevalent violators.

These observations are by no means conclusive, given that the sample size was just a few hundred people, on a specific day, at a specific airport. However, it does provide some information that may be useful for all airports across the nation and who should be enforcing the federal mandate.

This past October, around 1.8 million people flew each day on average. If just 1% were not wearing a face covering, this translates to around 18,000 maskless travelers every day. This is in contrast to more than 4,000 face-covering violations reported to the TSA in seven months between February and September of this year, or around 20 violators per day.

This presents a quandary in multiple ways.

Every reported face-covering violator may correspond to more than 900 who go unreported but are in violation of the federal mandate. This means that the vast majority of such people remain unidentified.

The TSA recently reported that it found almost 4,500 firearms at security checkpoints through Oct. 3, or around 16 firearms per day on average. Most people would agree that detecting people not wearing a face covering is significantly easier than detecting a firearm in a carry-on bag. Yet firearm detection and face-covering violator reports are occurring at similar rates, even though the number of such mask violators is much larger.

To go one step further, if every face-covering violation resulted in a fine of $500, the new minimum, those 18,000 maskless travelers would generate more than $3 billion per year in fines, which is around 40% of the TSA’s annual budget.

Clearly, this analysis illustrates why the TSA is the wrong agency to enforce the federal face-covering mandate.

Chasing passengers for violating the face-covering mandate is a distraction that the TSA should not be required to enforce. Even reporting such a violation to the agency is inappropriate. However, the potential revenue is sufficient to warrant large airports creating a staff of law enforcement officers that would easily pay for itself.

Increasing the fine for repeat violators is acceptable. However, banning them from traveling by air by not permitting them to pass through airport security checkpoints for a specified time period would serve as a more effective deterrent for future violations.

The takeaway from this data collection exercise is that a preponderance of travelers are following the federal mask mandate. Asking the TSA to enforce the mandate is misguided, inappropriate and dangerous. Let airport-staffed law enforcement do the job, and the problem of face mask violations would get resolved more effectively.

Sheldon H. Jacobson is professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

© 2021, Chicago Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

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