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‘Runway to Recovery’ offers airlines, airports advice on managing coronavirus; critics say it doesn’t go far enough

A TSA agent sits behind a protective barrier while screening a traveler at Reagan National Airport last month.
A TSA agent sits behind a protective barrier while screening a traveler at Reagan National Airport last month. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
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The federal government on Thursday released a framework for managing the novel coronavirus in the aviation sector — a list of recommendations it hopes will be embraced by the industry and offer Americans the assurance they need to start flying again.

The 43-page report, dubbed “Runway to Recovery,” was developed over the past several months with input from officials in the departments of Transportation, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security.

“A safe, secure, efficient, and resilient air transportation system that addresses the threat of COVID-19 is critical to reducing the public health risk and supporting the United States’ critical infrastructure needs,” the report states. “Government, aviation, and public health leaders must work together to meaningfully reduce the public health risk and restore passenger, aviation workforce, including crew, and public confidence in air travel.”

The blueprint echoes much of the advice outlined in reports by other aviation groups, including the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations body that released its recommendations last month.

It encourages measures that have become familiar to Americans who have endured months of shutdowns as officials struggle to contain the spread of the virus: social distancing, frequent hand-washing and the use of face coverings, particularly in crowded settings.

But it also offers recommendations specific to the industry, calling on airlines and airports to do as much as possible to limit person-to-person contact. For airlines, for example, it recommends limiting the number of seats sold on flights, changes to the way travelers board and deplane, and the use of biometrics for check-in. Airports should limit public access, allow only passengers and support workers in baggage claim areas and increase the number and frequency of shuttle vehicles to better promote social distancing, it says.

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

The report is already drawing criticism from those who say it offers only recommendations, not requirements, and has no enforcement component.

“This strategy simply lacks teeth,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “It contains only recommendations for airports and airlines, when mandates would be more effective in some cases. It seems the Trump administration has again tried to sidestep political controversy by avoiding clearly needed mandates, such as requirements for masks on airplanes and in airports.”

In a joint statement, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) welcomed the report but also said it falls short of what is needed to protect travelers.

“Sadly, the Administration’s guidance is still just that — unenforceable and woefully inadequate recommendations,” the senators said. “We need federally enforceable mandates to keep the traveling public safe. Moreover, this document merely scratches the surface of the many complex questions that we need to address to ensure safe and healthy air travel.”

Democrats are among those who have who have voiced concern that the lack of a single strategy for managing the pandemic in the nation’s aviation sector has led to a patchwork of responses that threaten to undermine recommendations from public health officials.

At a Senate hearing this week, Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, expressed concern about a recent announcement by American Airlines that it would no longer limit the number of seats sold on its flights.

“We don’t think it sends the right message,” Redfield said, adding that his agency was looking into the matter. “Again, I think it’s really important that individuals, whether it be on a bus, a train or a plane, are social distancing to a degree that’s feasible.”

Groups representing front-line workers, including flight attendants and pilots, also remain concerned and maintain that the only way to win back public confidence is with specific rules that can be enforced.

“The need for an enforceable federal mandate to ensure compliance with CDC guidelines is now abundantly clear — not only for health and safety reasons, but to regain the confidence of the flying public and power a strong economic recovery for our industry,” the Air Line Pilots Association said in a statement. “Once again, the federal government has failed to include such a mandate.”

The document stresses the importance of contact tracing, saying that airlines and federal health officials must work together to develop a system for collecting passenger information. However, efforts to implement such a system have stalled, despite the February publication of an interim rule requiring airlines to collect the necessary information for travelers on international flights.

With few rules in place, airlines, airports adopt their own strategies for dealing with coronavirus

“The U.S. Government is currently working with airlines to identify appropriate options for meeting this requirement on both an interim and long-term basis,” the report notes.

The report does not recommend the use of temperature screening for travelers, instead leaving it to airports and airlines to decide whether they want to deploy such technology. If it is used, the document warns that the scans should not be relied upon as “a stand-alone public health measure” because scans are unable to catch asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people. It also does not recommend rapid coronavirus testing, citing problems with the availability and reliability of such tests.

“As we reopen the economy under President Trump’s Opening Up America Again guidelines, we are taking aggressive measures to protect the American people from COVID-19 as they reengage their travel plans,” DHS acting secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement. “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.”

Despite the criticism, the plan has drawn praise from some industry groups.

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“America’s airports are committed to ensuring the health, safety, and security of the traveling public and airport workers,” said Kevin M. Burke, the president and chief executive of Airports Council International-North America. “We are grateful for our ongoing collaboration with federal aviation officials as commercial passenger traffic starts to increase. The guidance included in ‘Runway to Recovery’ represents another important step in that conversation.”