COVID-19 Recovery and the Aviation Industry

Guest Commentary

By Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA)

Right now, the world is dealing with a public-health crisis unprecedented in the modern era. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated U.S. aviation, shaken passenger confidence, and will likely result in mass layoffs throughout the industry. On April 1, just 136,023 passengers passed through Transportation Security Administration screening checkpoints at airports across the country—a 93 percent decrease compared to the same day in 2019.

In northwest Washington, including at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and at Everett’s Paine Field in my district, ALPA pilots are among the hundreds of thousands of transportation workers on the front lines, working hard to ensure the health and safety of airline crews and the traveling public.

Congress must continue to provide financial relief to the U.S aviation industry and its frontline workers to ensure the sustainability of this critical network. In March, Congress passed the bipartisan CARES Act, which provided robust protections for the aviation and aerospace workforce. The bill also provided much-needed relief for air carriers, including approximately $61 billion in grants and loans for passenger and cargo airlines to keep employees on the payroll.

More recently, the House passed the HEROES Act, which, among other things, strengthens working and travel conditions in aviation. The bill would require face coverings for passengers, flight attendants, and pilots when outside the flight deck; provide flight crews with certain personal protective equipment, like face coverings and gloves; require airlines to submit safety risk assessments to the FAA to authorize pilots to wear face coverings in the cockpit at their discretion; and ensure that aircraft and pilot training facilities are cleaned and sanitized frequently in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

However, this legislation can’t be Congress’s last word on a COVID-19 response. Safety is the number one priority, both on the ground and in the air. Recently, Airlines for America announced that its member carriers will be strongly enforcing face-covering policies through new preflight communications, onboard announcements, and consequences for noncompliance.

Although it took far too long, I’m also encouraged to see the Department of Transportation (DOT) improve its support for frontline transportation workers by recently announcing it will send 86.8 million cloth facial coverings to U.S. airports for passenger use. This is in addition to the 3.8 million cloth facial coverings designated for aviation employees. However, the administration must improve its coronavirus testing capacity to ensure the health and safety of U.S. passengers.

There is also a clear need for a national preparedness plan for the government, airports, and airlines to mount a coordinated response to the next pandemic. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study, published at my request in 2015, recommended that the DOT take the lead in putting such a plan together. But to date, the DOT hasn’t acted, and the GAO recommendation remains open. Both the HEROES Act and House version of the CARES Act included language I championed requiring the DOT, in coordination with other federal agencies, labor unions, and key aviation stakeholders, to develop a national aviation preparedness plan for communicable disease outbreaks. This plan is needed to ensure that all levels of government, airlines, airports, and other aviation stakeholders are better prepared for a future public-health crisis.

As Congress transitions from pandemic relief to economic recovery, the House Aviation Subcommittee will continue to prioritize strengthening aviation safety and enhancing the air travel experience for passengers and aviation workers.

This article was originally published in the June 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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