Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf visits Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport on May 22, 2020. (DHS photo by Tara A. Molle)

Joint ‘Runway to Recovery’ Plan Stresses Multi-Layered COVID-19 Air Travel Strategy

The federal government released its “Runway to Recovery” framework on moving air transportation forward, based on the premise that, stopping short of mandates, “all persons in the air transportation system, including passengers, have a responsibility to themselves and to others to make every effort to minimize the risk of virus transmission as we respond to and recover from COVID-19.”

The departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, and Health and Human Services issued the joint guidance Thursday as a coordinated way to incorporate each department’s area of expertise into a plan to make air travel safer as coronavirus continues to surge — with the United States hitting a global record Thursday for the most cases recorded anywhere in one day — and the country hasn’t yet emerged from the first wave of the disease.

The U.S. agencies’ roadmap comes on the heels of guidance released a month ago by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council, which consulted with the World Health Organization and key aviation industry groups including the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Airports Council International (ACI World), the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO), and the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations (ICCAIA) to draft the recommendations aimed at restarting the international air transport system and aligning its global recovery.

In a statement, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said “aggressive measures” were being taken to protect the flying public.

“Air travel is critical to our economic recovery and DHS has been working closely with our partners in the aviation industry throughout every step of our response to this pandemic to ensure that we are facilitating travel in a safe and secure manner,” Wolf said.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the new document “provides clear guidance to airlines and airports to protect the traveling public, and we encourage people to pay attention to it.”

The document declares that “the aviation industry has maintained a safe and secure system, because stakeholders do not compete on safety and security; we expect the aviation industry to take the same approach to implementing guidance on public health risk mitigations.”

“The guidance will be periodically reviewed by the U.S. Government, which invites airport, airline, and public health partners to identify opportunities for re-evaluation of measures as appropriate,” it adds. “Controls and risk mitigation measures employed in the air transportation system should be consistent with, and supportive of, the broader set of community public health interventions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”

Measures to immediately implement are broken down into:

  • Educate and communicate with passengers and employees.
  • Require appropriate face coverings.
  • Promote social distancing to the extent possible.
  • Enhance cleaning and disinfection procedures.
  • Conduct health assessment for passengers and employees.
  • Collect passenger contact information for public health response purposes.
  • Protect employees and separate passengers and crew.
  • Minimize in-person interaction touch points and shared objects, documents and surfaces.
  • Report daily status of public health risk mitigation efforts among stakeholders.
  • Enhance airport security checkpoint operations.
  • Utilize government technology programs.

The document stresses that “while implementing new public health measures, aviation safety and security cannot be compromised,” and notes that “aviation workers, especially airline crew, should be trained and supported to address the additional stress that they, passengers, and co-workers may be under while traveling.” Modifications to adhere to the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Air Carrier Access Act should also be integrated, and transparency to all travelers on what they’ll face at each step of their journey is emphasized.

With the country “still experiencing large scale community transmission” of COVID-19, those in the air travel system have to account for asymptomatic carriers spreading the virus as well as “a low yield of detection for COVID-19 during entry screening of international arrivals.”

“A multi-layered approach is vital to minimizing the spread of COVID-19 in the air transportation system” as “no single mitigation strategy alone is adequate,” the guidance states.

However, while airlines are encouraged to enforce social distancing and ensure passengers are wearing face coverings, the administration is not mandating the safety practices. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) welcomed the creation of an interagency working group but said the strategy “simply lacks teeth” and tries to “sidestep political controversy by avoiding clearly needed mandates, such as requirements for masks on airplanes and in airports.”

United and American Airlines said they’re booking full flights because they can’t meet the six-feet social distancing guidelines anyway, while other carriers such as JetBlue, Delta and Southwest said they’ll continue to keep planes from reaching capacity as a safety measure right now, such keeping middle seats empty.

The guidance says it is “imperative that airlines and airports inform passengers when it may not be possible to meet social distancing expectations and, as a result, emphasize the additional importance of observing all the other preventive measures, including strict hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, and wearing a face mask or cloth face covering.” Airlines and airports “are strongly encouraged to require that everyone correctly wear a mask or cloth face covering in shared spaces” unless they meet certain exceptions.

Temperature screening is described as an optional practice that “should not be relied upon as a standalone public health measure” but “may also serve as a general deterrent for passengers who may have otherwise considered traveling when ill.” Testing for COVID-19 is not recommended in the document “because the capabilities do not currently exist for routine inclusion of a testing strategy.”

The guidelines also encourages as many contactless processes as possible, including minimal document handling between passengers and staff, and keeping daily reports of issues at an airport including shortages of PPE or cleaning supplies as well as non-compliance with established risk-mitigation rules.

Transportation Security Administration checkpoint measures include minimal contact identity verification, allowing larger amounts of hygiene products like hand sanitizer in carry-on bags, installing barriers to protect security personnel (several officers have died after contracting the virus), implementing passenger metering, and minimizing wait times.

In addition to seat assignments, airlines are encouraged to take into account how passengers board the plane, aircraft ventilation systems, limited or discontinued food and beverage service, regulating which passengers can use which restroom, limiting crew member movement, and keeping extra PPE on board.

As the disease evolves, the report noted that in the future passengers who can prove they’re a lower health risk — with proof of vaccination, recovery, or immunity — may be able to enjoy an easier process akin to a trusted traveler program. Technology could also sanitize bags during screening.

The guidance acknowledges that “until transmission in communities and countries is controlled or there is an effective vaccine with widespread uptake, public health risk from COVID-19 remains in the air transportation system,” and stresses that “governments and quasi-government entities, such as airport authorities, must work cooperatively to achieve the common objective of minimizing risk exposure, using consistent mitigation measures and providing consistent communications on expected behaviors.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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