GAO calls for federal leadership on air travel communicable diseases

GAO calls for federal leadership on air travel communicable diseases

Concerns about air travel’s role in disease transmission have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stakeholders say more research under real-world situations and human behavior is needed and could guide action to protect public health.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says Congress should consider directing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop and implement a strategy for research into aviation communicable diseases in coordination with other federal agencies and outside partners.

Some investigations have already been carried out since the beginning of the pandemic. For example, Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer issued a joint publication of separate CFD research conducted by each manufacturer on their aircraft. Although the methods differed slightly, each detailed simulation confirmed that aircraft airflow systems control the movement of particles in the cabin, thereby limiting the spread of viruses. This is supported by the results of a 2020 study by the Department of Defense and United Airlines, which found that passengers wearing masks have a very low risk of contracting COVID-19 on planes, even on fully packed ones flights.

Other research has looked at the impact of different flight operations — such as boarding airplanes from the back to the front — on the risk of disease exposure. However, stakeholders surveyed by GAO described the need for more research that incorporates real-world situations and human behavior. Additional research could support the development of evidence-based mitigation measures, policies and regulations to protect public health. Stakeholders identified several challenges, most notably the lack of federal leadership to facilitate interdisciplinary research and fill gaps to conduct research on communicable diseases in aviation. Stakeholders said the researchers’ inability to access planes, airports or data also pose challenges to conducting the research needed.

GAO found that several agencies have focused on research areas most relevant to their priorities and missions. These agencies include the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Transportation’s FAA, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). However, the state regulator found that none of these agencies made any efforts to advance the necessary research into communicable diseases in aviation more broadly. Officials from each of those agencies said a more coordinated federal approach to identifying and funding relevant research could provide valuable information and influence policy and guidance development. Additionally, bringing in the assets of various federal agencies could connect researchers with aviation stakeholders across disciplines, provide clearer access to federal research funding, and help identify needed research across disciplines.

The FAA recognizes that it has broad powers to conduct and sponsor research into aviation communicable diseases, but the agency has in the past claimed that this work falls outside of its core responsibility for aviation safety. Of course, the FAA is currently grappling with 5G, drones, and advanced air mobility, all of which are affecting safety in national airspace. However, GAO notes that the FAA has prior experience conducting and supporting such research, as well as strong ties to the airline industry, which are critical to advancing the research needed. In particular, GAO notes that the FAA has conducted research in the past, usually in response to government mandates, including work on in-cabin disease transmission. In addition, the regulator believes that leading the development of a coordinated strategy with the FAA’s efforts to develop a national aviation preparedness planin coordination with DHS and HHS, as repeatedly requested by GAO.

It is worth noting that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has demonstrated the low incidence of in-flight transmission of COVID-19. Out of a total of 1.2 billion passengers, 44 cases of COVID-19 suspected of being transmitted in connection with air travel were reported.

Still, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened ongoing concerns about air travel’s role in spreading disease and raised questions about passenger and crew safety. More interdisciplinary research, particularly involving human behavior and real-world situations, would allow stakeholders to better understand the risks of disease transmission during air travel. Such research could provide insights into the effectiveness of different mitigation measures and support the development of evidence-based public health policies and requirements.

GAO has determined that the FAA is unlikely to pursue this research on its own initiative and is therefore asking Congress to consider directing the FAA to develop and implement a strategy to carry out the necessary research on aviation communicable diseases in Coordinate with relevant federal agencies to identify and advance agencies such as DHS and HHS as well as outside partners. Consistent with leading agency collaboration practices, GAO says this strategy should at a minimum clearly identify the roles and responsibilities for participating agencies, determine the resources required, and document any relevant agreements.

Read the full report at GAO

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