The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawmakers request new GAO studies on pandemic’s effect on the aviation industry

Studies would examine the industry’s response to the pandemic as well as the roles of local, state and federal agencies

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) at a House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing on May 15, 2019. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Two top Democrats on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure have requested that the Government Accountability Office conduct studies examining the risk of air travel during a public health crisis.

Reps. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the committee, and Rick Larsen (Wash.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee, said the work is needed to better understand how the coronavirus can spread through air travel and what strategies can be put in place to control that spread.

The aviation industry has been among those hit hardest by the pandemic, which has grounded tens of thousands of flights and reduced passenger traffic to a trickle. The International Air Transport Association recently estimated that airlines will suffer a net loss of $118.5 billion in 2020, up from a previous estimate of $84.2 billion.

DeFazio and Larsen said that they are aware of the pandemic’s effect on the industry but that the risks of air travel at such a time cannot be ignored.

“Unfortunately, these losses do not negate the fact that air travel, more than any other mode of transportation, has the greatest potential to carry this disease from one part of the world to another,” they wrote in a letter this month to Gene Dodaro, comptroller general of the United States. The pair said that until a vaccine is widely available, “reducing the spread of COVID-19 through air travel and revitalizing the U.S. airline industry will depend in large part on a better understanding of how diseases, particularly those that are airborne, spread through air travel and identifying technologies and practices that can help mitigate disease transmission.”

The lawmakers requested that the GAO conduct three studies: one that examines research by government, academics and the airline industry on disease transmission via air travel; another that looks at the roles and responsibilities of local, state and federal authorities as well as those of airports, airlines and their contractors; and a third that assesses the measures the industry has put in place in response to the coronavirus.

“This report should provide lessons learned by aviation regulators and stakeholders that could assist with preparedness planning; identify successful disease mitigation strategies, including operational practices and technologies; and recommend any changes to current laws, regulation, and industry practices,” the lawmakers said.

DeFazio and Larsen have asked that the first study be completed within nine months.

The three reports will expand on previous GAO work assessing whether the aviation industry is prepared to deal with a global disease outbreak. In 2015, the GAO issued a report calling on the Transportation Department to take the lead in developing a national plan for dealing with an outbreak, but such a plan was never developed, in part because agencies could not agree on which one should take the lead.

An earlier version of this story misstated the name and title of Gene Dodaro. This version has been corrected.

Former Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza says coronavirus has airlines scrambling to conserve cash and hang on to business. Here's what passengers should expect. (Video: The Washington Post)