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National Aviation Preparedness Plan a Step Closer as Legislation Approved

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has approved legislation that would require the development of a national strategy to ensure the safety of airline passengers and the aviation workforce during future pandemics.

Introduced by Aviation Subcommittee Chair Rick Larsen (D-WA), the bill would direct the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), in collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to develop a National Aviation Preparedness Plan. The bill also mandates improved coordination between federal agencies, identification of strategies to stop the spread of communicable disease outbreaks and increased collaboration between U.S. air carriers, airports, aviation workers, the DOT and other federal agencies to ensure a more effective response to future pandemics. It would consider the latest peer-reviewed scientific studies that address communicable disease with respect to air transportation.

COVID-19 is the latest disease to raise concerns over contagions spread through air travel, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been calling for an aviation preparedness plan for several years. As far back as 2015, during the Ebola epidemic, GAO recommended that DOT develop a comprehensive national aviation preparedness plan for communicable disease outbreaks. GAO said in June 2020 that such a plan could have improved coordination between public-health and aviation sectors during COVID-19 to address issues like passenger screening.

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 disruptions to the national aviation system. A piecemeal approach to adopting standards during the response to COVID-19, such as various airline and airport policies regarding facemasks, demonstrated 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. 

When GAO reiterated its call for a national aviation preparedness plan two years ago, DOT agreed that it is needed, but the agency suggested that HHS and the DHS have responsibility for communicable disease response and preparedness planning. Thus, with each agency believing it should be someone else’s responsibility to take the bull by the horns, the aviation sector has worked through the current pandemic – and continues to do so – without a national plan.

The new legislation approved by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on July 20 calls for an adaptable and scalable framework for airports and air carriers to align plans including the emergency response plans, of such airports and air carriers and provide guidance as to each individual plan. It would also improve coordination among airports, air carriers, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, other appropriate Federal entities, and State and local governments and health agencies with respect to preparing for and responding to communicable disease outbreaks.

The legislation proposes to create a process to identify appropriate personal protective equipment, if any, for covered employees to reduce the likelihood of exposure to a covered communicable disease*, and issue recommendations for the equipage of such employees. It would also create a process to identify appropriate techniques, strategies, and protective infrastructure, for the cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitization of aircraft and enclosed aviation facilities and issue recommendations pertaining to such techniques, strategies, and protective infrastructure.

The plan would identify and assign Federal agency roles in the deployment of emerging and existing technologies and solutions to reduce covered communicable diseases in the aviation ecosystem. 

Assuming the legislation is passed, the Secretary of Transportation will consult with the aviation industry and labor stakeholders when developing the plan.

*The term ‘‘covered communicable disease’’ means a communicable disease that has the potential to cause a future epidemic or pandemic of infectious disease that would constitute a public health emergency of international concern.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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