On Monday, April 27, 2020, an employee put on a protective mask behind the United Airlines check-in counter at San Diego International Airport (SAN) in San Diego, California.
Bing Guan | Bloomberg via Getty Images
Protecting air travelers and aviation workers from the corona virus is a challenge like no other. So far, however, it is unclear which government agency would take responsibility for precautions for passenger health.
Airlines are putting together a patchwork of guidelines for pandemic flying, such as: B. Locking the middle seats, issuing new entry procedures and the requirement of masks. At least one airport has started using a thermal imaging camera to check people for fever.
On Tuesday Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass. And Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Proposed a bill that would instruct multiple health agencies to set up a task force to set plans and guidelines for flying. The task force would also establish protocols for a recovery in demand for air travel, which has decreased more than 90% compared to the previous year.
However, a specific government plan still needs to be implemented that standardizes tasks such as performing health checks on passengers, prescribing masks, or requiring other precautions to prevent Covid-19 from spreading to the longest-growing aviation market in the world.
"It's going to be a hot potato game," said Jeffrey Price, an aviation security expert and professor at the Metropolitan State University in Denver.
Last week, the United Nations aviation arm launched a task force that includes the World Health Organization and more than a dozen governments, aviation regulators, and industry groups to address the necessary changes in aviation.
One of the big questions regarding passenger health is where the screening can be done.
"To believe that you can put people in an enclosed space and displace them, you will endanger them more than if you hadn't done anything at all, " said Angela Gittens, director general of the Airports Council International, an airport trading group. "You want to take measures that are geared to risk."
Who can request changes?
The Department of Homeland Security's units, which are responsible for checking outgoing passengers and arriving arrivals – the Transport Safety Authority and Customs and Border Protection – rely on the health expertise of the Ministry of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Control and Prevention of Diseases, said the DHS.
"The DHS will continue to engage with interagency colleagues and our airport and airline partners to make informed decisions regarding the health and safety of the aviation environment," the agency said.
The CDC has spoken to flight attendant unions and the Department of Transportation, among others, about health precautions. Unions, including the Association of Flight Attendants, the country's largest flight attendant union, have called on federal agencies to require masks for employees and travelers, and require the crew to have access to alcohol-based gloves and gels.
The CDC recommends that people wear fabric face coverings over their noses and mouths "in a community setting, even while traveling when they need to travel." The masks are said to "not protect the wearer, but can prevent viruses from spreading from the wearer to others. This is particularly important if someone is infected but has no symptoms," said a CDC statement.
But CDC spokesman Bert Kelly said the agency is not enforcing. "We don't pretend to be problems. We make recommendations," he said.
Last week, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, urged the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Steve Dickson, to request masks or facewear for all crew and passengers, and more space between passengers to provide.
"With our nation facing this devastating public health crisis, it is up to each federal agency to set clear, uniform requirements that focus on the health and well-being of all Americans," DeFazio said in a statement. "I believe that these measures are not only the responsibility of the FAA, but are also important to protect the frontline airline staff and the flying crowd who still have to travel during the pandemic."
The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots at United, Delta and others, urged the Department of Transportation in late March to set aircraft cleaning standards and to require airlines to notify employees if employees they had recently contacted test positive for Covid-19.
In a response to the Air Line Pilot Association on April 14, Dickson said: "While the FAA continues to focus consistently on aviation security, we are not a public health agency. We need to contact other US government agencies to provide guidance on the Preserve publicity and health at work. "
The FAA informed CNBC in a statement last week that the agency "is working with airlines to ensure that procedures are in place to address the public health risks to its crews and passengers."
The union, which represents some 46,000 transport security officials, the American Federation of Government Employees, has called on Congress to ensure that TSA workers have adequate protective equipment and warns that they are "at significant risk" of the disease . Around 500 TSA officials tested positive for Covid-19.
Union Glasses spokeswoman Sydney Glass, who disagreed with the idea that TSA officials may be able to perform passenger health checks, said to CNBC: "TSA officials' obligation to perform Covid-19 tests is far from their duties and responsibilities. "
The TSA, launched two months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, is responsible for inspecting passengers and baggage for prohibited items. Adding health checks to the screening for an essentially invisible threat could be detrimental, MSUs Price warned.
"If I'm a TSA officer, I have to look for weapons, knives, and bombs, and now I'm supposed to do health checks?" He said. "I can only make up so many at once."
The airlines take their own measures
Airlines have started taking their own actions on airplanes to reassure travelers. For example, major airlines said last week that they will require passengers – as well as flight attendants and some other employees – to wear masks. Some airlines, including Americans, said they would provide masks for travelers.
In addition to the masks, American plans are planning to distribute disinfectant wipes and / or gels starting this month. Leisure company Allegiant said it would provide passengers with disposable masks, disposable latex gloves, and cleaning wipes when boarding.
Gittens from Airport Council International said one thing that could change was the interaction of passengers with touch screens at airports.
United Airlines plans to test non-contact kiosks where travelers print luggage tags. It has also started boarding planes from back to front to avoid overcrowding, and travelers are having their own boarding passes scanned.
President Donald Trump, after being asked about travel from Latin America last week, said the government is "establishing a system in which we will do some testing and we will work with the airlines on it," referring to both temperature testing and Virus tests.
The White House did not go beyond Trump's statements. Industry members say the government is responsible for all health examinations.
Airlines for America, an industry group that includes Delta, American, Southwest, United, and JetBlue, said that "all review processes for the traveling audience are the responsibility of the government" in the United States.
"US airlines have taken significant, proactive measures to protect both passengers and employees during this crisis. All A4A member companies meet or exceed all CDC guidelines," it said.
Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines, said last week that his employees shouldn't do any health tests.
"We would certainly see this as a role that should be played by the government and healthcare providers, not by airline employees," he said.
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