The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said the U.S. Department of Transportation has failed to implement a plan to prevent the spread of contagious diseases via aircraft despite a recommendation to do so five years ago.
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, said the Government Accountability Office recommended the Department of Transportation craft a comprehensive response plan in response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
“That hasn't happened,” he said during a hearing Tuesday of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation. “Through two administrations it hasn’t happened and now it’s a little late.”
DeFazio’s remarks came as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are seeking information from airlines on passenger manifests so they can contact those who may have come in contact with passengers who were later diagnosed with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, which has killed six people in the U.S.
“CDC shouldn’t have to deal with individual airlines,” he said. “Policy should be developed from knowledgeable people at FAA or DOT so we can begin to better track passengers.”
DeFazio, along with Aviation Subcommittee Chair Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat, sent a letter to Chao last week urging her to implement the GAO’s 2015 recommendation to create a national aviation preparedness plan for communicable disease outbreaks.
“Such a plan could establish a mechanism for coordination between the aviation and public health sectors and provides clear and transparent planning assumptions for a variety of types and levels of communicable disease threats,” that report recommended.
In a statement, the DOT said the federal government since 2016 has given HHS overall responsibility for disease response, with DHS having the lead in preparedness planning for all sectors, including transportation.
"In accordance with that plan, the President has taken decisive action to protect Americans and to keep the threat of the disease low in the United States," according to the statement. "DOT plays a supporting role, and we have been coordinating daily with aviation stakeholders, foreign counterparts, and lead federal agencies."
Although the DOT has a role in bringing industry stakeholders together, the statement also noted, it "does not lead national planning or response efforts on public health preparedness."
Republicans on the panel also expressed concern about mitigating the spread of the virus via air travel. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Transportation and Science Subcommittee on Aviation and Space, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, has set a hearing on the topic for Wednesday.
Separately, the U.S. Travel Association on Tuesday projected that international inbound travel to the U.S. will fall 6 percent over the next three months as the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread. If true, it would be the largest decline in international inbound travel since the 2007-2008 financial crisis.
During a hearing last week with the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation, Chao said the department’s efforts include:
- Health screening at 11 designated U.S. airports for American passengers who traveled in coronavirus-stricken areas.
- Creation of health protocols to protect crews of airplanes flying between the U.S. and foreign destinations.
- Working to bring American citizens back home from overseas.
- Working to continue air cargo between the U.S. and virus-hit destinations.
But Rep. Ross Spano, R-Fla., who has seen one case of the virus in his district, wondered whether airports were taking the necessary precautions, including deep cleaning high-touch areas.
Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, sought to reassure the lawmakers that airplanes were safe, saying airplane HEPA filters were more than 99 percent effective.
“It is completely safe to fly right now,” he said.
Still, he said his organization has recommended broader waivers for flight changes and enhanced aircraft and airport decontamination procedures.
Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, D-Mass., asked witness Matt Klein, executive vice president and chief commercial officer for Spirit Air, why airlines were balking at providing passenger manifest information — including name, phone and email — to the CDC.
Klein said such information “hasn’t historically been collected by airlines,” and is even more difficult to obtain when a third party, such as Expedia, sells the tickets.
“Yeah, but will you give what you’ve got?” Lynch asked.
Klein said that while it’s “inefficient” and “hard to get,” Spirit was beginning to collect the data for the CDC.
Leader, meanwhile, said while historically third-party ticket sellers have not shared that information, “I think you’re going to see a wall break down,” with more of those third-party sellers sharing that information with the CDC, he said.
“It’s important information to have,” Lynch said. “Especially for that passenger and their family. They want to know they’ve been in contact with someone so they can take those precautions.”
An industry group, Airlines for America, also noted the difficulties created by third-party booking when trying to track passengers.
"Roughly half of all U.S. airline reservations are booked through travel agencies (both traditional and online travel agencies) powered by Global Distribution Systems," said spokesman Carter Yang in an email. "They are not required to provide the passenger data sought by the CDC to the airlines. U.S. carriers will continue to work with the federal government to address these information gaps.”