COVID-19 is the latest disease to raise concerns over contagions spread through air travel. In 2015, during the Ebola epidemic, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report recommended that the Department of Transportation (DOT) develop a comprehensive national aviation preparedness plan for communicable disease outbreaks. It has yet to do so.
Such a plan could have improved coordination between public-health and aviation sectors during COVID-19 to address issues like passenger screening, says a new GAO statement, which also points out that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has conducted limited research on disease transmission during air travel or in airports.
In light of the pandemic and warnings about the risks of air travel, U.S. passenger airline traffic fell by 96 percent in April 2020 as compared to April 2019. Ensuring that the United States is prepared to respond to disease threats from air travel, as well as conducting the necessary research to reduce the risks of contagion, are two vital responsibilities of the federal government – for both public health and a stable economy.
If we look back to December 2015, the Ebola outbreak prompted GAO to recommend that DOT In December 2015 during the Ebola epidemic, GAO recommended that the Department of Transportation (DOT) work with relevant stakeholders, such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan for communicable disease outbreaks. Fast forward to today and DOT is confronting an even more widespread public health crisis without having taken steps to implement this recommendation. Not only could such a plan provide a mechanism for the public-health and aviation sectors to coordinate to more effectively prevent and control a communicable disease threat, it could also help minimize unnecessary disruptions to the national aviation system, disruptions that to date have been significant. Some aviation stakeholders have publicly highlighted the resulting piecemeal approach to adopting standards during the response to COVID-19, such as various airline and airport policies regarding facemasks, as demonstrating the need for a more coordinated response. The existence of a national plan might have reduced some of the confusion among aviation stakeholders and passengers.
DOT agrees that a national aviation preparedness plan is needed, but the agency continues to suggest that HHS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have responsibility for communicable disease response and preparedness planning.
In the case of a communicable disease threat, numerous federal, state, and local entities may be called upon to respond, depending on their legal authority and whether the threat is identified before, during, or after the flight. For example, before boarding, HHS and DHS may identify travelers who are not allowed travel, based on public health threats.
GAO continues to believe that DOT is in the best position to lead this effort given its oversight responsibilities and ties with relevant aviation stakeholders. DOT maintains otherwise, and the outcome is that we now find ourselves in a global pandemic with no national plan for aviation preparedness. As of June 2020, DOT, DHS, and HHS all stated that the federal government still has not developed a national aviation preparedness plan to respond to communicable disease outbreaks. It is high time that the federal government or the agencies themselves determine who should be responsible for this plan, and begin work without delay as the country sees an increase in the daily number of infections.
GAO’s latest statement on the issue also states its concern over FAA’s limited sponsoring of federal research into disease transmission onboard aircraft and in airports. FAA’s research goals focus on areas like improving airport operations and air space management, and developing new technologies, which FAA has aligned to DOT’s strategic goals related to safety, infrastructure, and innovation. Based on prior work and interviews with FAA officials, GAO found that FAA’s research in cabin safety for crew and passengers does not focus on disease transmission. For example, according to FAA officials, ongoing research that most closely relates to disease contamination is research related to monitoring the quality of “bleed air,” which is outside air that is drawn through jet engines into an aircraft cabin.
However, FAA has funded some programs that are relevant to mitigating communicable disease transmission at airports and on aircraft. For example, in 2015 the Transportation Research Board’s Airports Cooperative Research Program (ACRP), which is funded by FAA’s Airport Improvement Program, decided to hold a series of workshops on topics that are of significance to airports and that are not being addressed by other federal research programs. The decision to hold the first ACRP workshop on communicable disease occurred toward the end of the Ebola virus outbreak. ACRP has also issued reports on reducing communicable disease transmission at airports and aircraft.
GAO’s statement also considered how technology could help aviation during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are a variety of technologies that could help address infectious disease transmission associated with air travel, but these are at various stages of maturity. For example, the initial screening of passengers for fevers is typically done with handheld infrared thermometers and has been reportedly discussed for use by Transportation Security Administration agents. Reports also state that the mass screening of crowds using thermal cameras has been used in some airports in Asia, but such scanners are still being tested for standalone use in the U.S. with some concerns reported about the accuracy of the results. Aircraft disinfection has traditionally been carried out by cleaning crews, but a number of methods are now being developed using heat, chemicals, and UV light, and are under examination by researchers. Some airports and airlines as well as other modes of transportation, have begun implementing UV cleaning, while waiting for national guidance.