Airline pilots are at odds with carriers over how to keep crews and passengers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, and their union is pressing Congress to mandate uniform procedures for preventing transmission of disease-causing virus.
On Tuesday, House Democrats sided with the pilots, releasing legislation that would require airlines to abide by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cleaning and decontamination requirements.
Some Democrats in the Senate, too, say they agree airlines should do better: Democratic members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee suggested during a May 6 hearing that the federal government should set uniform guidelines for the aviation sector and traveling public.
"To date, airlines, airports, and federal agencies have implemented inconsistent measures to thwart the spread of the novel coronavirus through the aviation system," ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, wrote in a Monday letter to the White House Coronavirus Task Force, noting that "airlines and airports need further guidance and clarity."
According to the Airline Pilots Association, the pilots' union, nearly 300 of its members have tested positive for COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to calling on Congress to require airlines to follow CDC and Federal Aviation Administration guidance for aircraft and flight deck cleaning and disinfection, they've also sought mandates for the carriers to provide PPE gear for flight crews and employee notification when colleagues have been exposed in the workplace. In a May 6 report, the union accused airlines of failing to comply with public health guidelines.
"Each day we are getting reports that airlines are still not doing the right thing — and what is required to keep flight crews and passengers healthy and safe during this pandemic," Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA president, said in a statement. "These reports of noncompliance make clear that Congress must act, not just to protect pilots and passengers, but also to restore confidence in airline travel. The first step to ensuring an economic turnaround is to have uniform, mandatory public health guidelines."
The CEO of Airlines for America, an industry trade group, argued at the May 6 committee hearing that airlines are working hard to comply with public health guidelines and that the association has not been able to identify systemic compliance failures.
"We're doing everything that we can in cockpits to keep it clean in terms of the pilots, our flight attendants," said the CEO, Nicholas Calio. "We've enhanced the cleaning procedures so I guess we wouldn't agree with the claims."
A spokesperson for A4A also said that all members "comply with or exceed" CDC guidance.
"All A4A carriers have aircraft equipped with HEPA filters and have implemented intensive cleaning protocols, in some cases to include electrostatic cleaning and fogging procedures," said Communications Director Katherine Estep. "In addition to enhancing sanitation procedures, carriers have also implemented a range of policies – including back-to-front boarding and adjusting food and beverage services – to help ensure the wellbeing of passengers and crew."
To date, several airlines including American, Delta, United, Southwest and JetBlue have required passengers to wear masks during some or all of their interactions with airline employees and passengers, JetBlue being the first major airline to do so on April 28. A spokesperson for Delta confirmed that most U.S. carriers have implemented a number of new cleaning and safety measures that "not only meet but exceed CDC guidelines," including capping seat capacity and sanitizing flights, despite reports that middle seats are still being occupied.
Reuters reported Tuesday that American, Delta and United are no longer requiring flight attendants to enforce rules calling for passengers to wear face masks on board, but rather are being told to encourage them to do so. The airlines would continue to allow employees to deny boarding at the gate to passengers not wearing one and to provide masks to those who do not have one, according to the report.
The House bill would require passengers and crew on airlines to wear face coverings.
Unlike other domestic airlines thus far, Frontier Airlines announced on May 7 that it would be implementing temperature screenings via touchless thermometers for all passengers and team members prior to boarding flights, effective June 1.
"The health and safety of everyone flying Frontier is paramount and temperature screenings add an additional layer of protection for everyone onboard," CEO Barry Biffle said in a statement.
Biffle also said the airline hopes to be able to hand that task over to the Transportation Security Administration, which has not announced plans to assume that role. TSA has said it will require employees at airport screening points to wear masks and some airports have required passengers to wear masks.
"Increased safety measures like temperature checks are needed to keep passengers and crews safe and restore the public's confidence in air travel," said Sara Nelson, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President, representing 50,000 Flight Attendants from 19 airlines. "These types of safety measures should be led by the federal government to ensure procedures are based on public health guidance and consistent across the industry."
Outside of the U.S., the International Air Transport Association said it supports measures to reduce the risk of onboard transmission, including limiting passenger movement during flight, boarding and unboarding , and using catering processes that reduce contact. However, it doesn't recommend restricting the use of the middle seat to create social distancing, citing evidence that the risk of transmission on board is low.
"The cabin environment naturally makes transmission of viruses difficult for a variety of reasons. That helps explain why we have seen little evidence of onboard transmission," IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac said in a statement. "In the immediate term, our aim is to make the cabin environment even safer with effective measures so that passengers and crew can return to travel with confidence."