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Bill would create aviation response plan for pandemics and study disease transmission on airplanes

As Reported by Lori Aratani for the Washington Post

Democratic leaders on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced legislation Thursday that would require the transportation secretary to develop an aviation-sector plan for managing disease outbreaks.

The Healthy Flights Act of 2021 — introduced by Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), the committee’s chairman; and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the aviation subcommittee chairman — also makes clear that the Federal Aviation Administration has the authority to impose requirements to protect passengers and airline workers during public health emergencies. In addition, it would require that people wear masks on airplanes and in airports, and that airline employees and some FAA personnel be given personal protective equipment during public health emergencies linked to respiratory diseases.

The new requirements would be incorporated into preflight announcements, according to the legislation.

In a statement, DeFazio said the bill would provide “clear, consistent rules and guidelines that give flight and cabin crew the authority they need to keep passengers safe.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic exposed serious flaws in the federal government’s preparedness to keep airline and airport workers and travelers safe amid a public health emergency,” he said. “And with tens of millions of people yet to be vaccinated, Congress still can and must do more to protect those on the frontlines of our aviation system from future pandemics like COVID-19.”

Biden signs order requiring masks on planes, buses and trains and at airports

DeFazio also called on the Biden administration to extend a transportation mask mandate that is to expire next month.

During much of the coronavirus pandemic, the FAA resisted calls by lawmakers to require masks on planes and in airports, saying it viewed its role as a regulatory agency overseeing safety, not health. The FAA’s reluctance to act meant individual airlines and airports were left to establish their own mask policies. However, on his first day in office, President Biden signed an order requiring masks on planes, buses and trains and at airports.

DeFazio and Larsen have said a national plan is critical to ensuring that the airline industry, federal health officials and other federal agencies are prepared to deal with future outbreaks.

After examining the government response to the Ebola outbreak, the Government Accountability Office in 2015 recommended that such a plan be developed for the aviation sector. The Transportation Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed with the recommendation, but a plan was never created, because agencies couldn’t agree on which of them should take the lead.

“Keeping the traveling public and frontline aviation workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic is even more difficult because of the lack of coordinated federal leadership,” Larsen said in a statement. “This bill includes common-sense measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 in air travel, ensure the safety of passengers and aviation workers, and better prepare the U.S. aviation industry for public health crises.”

The measure also calls for additional study of the transmission of infectious diseases on airplanes and the creation of an FAA Center of Excellence on Infectious Disease Response and Prevention in Aviation.

A study by researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, often cited by airlines, found that the risk of contracting the coronavirus on an airplane can be lower than it is for activities such as eating at a restaurant, in part because aircraft ventilation systems constantly circulate and refresh cabin air and because of strategies that include wearing masks and stepped-up cleaning. Researchers say they reached their conclusions independently, although the work was funded by the aviation industry.

The bill is co-sponsored by 15 other Democratic lawmakers and has the support of several industry groups, including the Airport Council International, the Coalition of Air Line Pilots Associations (CAPA) and Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

“Having a common sense, predictable and enforceable set of standards to protect the heath safety of our passengers and flight crews will be a critical component to ensure the airline industry’s recovery and restore our passenger’s confidence in air travel,” said Larry Rooney, president of CAPA. “We look forward to working with Chairs DeFazio and Larsen in seeing that this legislation is enacted into law.”

DeFazio and Larsen introduced a similar measure last year.