House Science Panel Looks at Making Air Travel Safer from Viruses

We normally watch congressional hearings remotely, but it definitely feels strange to be witnessing one happen where all parties involved are looking at their screens while simultaneously relearning and performing their professional duties. This is the new normal. 

We often hear that these are uncertain times, but that especially resonates after Tuesday’s House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics hearing entitled “Research and Development to Support Healthy Air Travel in the COVID-19 Era and Beyond.”

Subcommittee Chairwoman Kendra Horn (D-OK) presided over a hearing that may have raised more questions for viewers than it answered, namely who is in charge of making sure our air travel systems are prepared for the next pandemic, who does the research to prepare us, and who pays for it? 

The witnesses, though they were subject matter experts, were very honest about the immense complexity and frustration that these questions engender. (Clicking on the witness name takes you to their written testimony.)

  • Heather Krause, Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues for Government Accountability Office;
  • Dr. Bryon Jones, Professor of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Kansas State University; and
  • Dr. Vicki Hertzeberg, Director of the Center for Data Science at Emory University.

All the witnesses had laser-precise answers to equality-specific questions but were not afraid to simply say “We do not know yet.” 

Chairwoman Horn led opening statements by highlighting how  air travel is essential to our society, even going as far as to mention projections of even greater dependence somewhere in what seems to be the not-so-near future. Then she overviewed COVID’s shock on the air travel industry and noted the 96 percent dip in air travel in April of this year down from last year. Horn did set the table by naming a lack of uniformity in individual airline’s approaches to mitigating the risk of transmission for passengers and crew and set out to see what the research had to say about how the industry could be prepared for the next threat. 

Ranking Member Brian Babin (R-TX), in his opening statement, stressed an International Air Transportation Association poll that indicated that only 45 percent of the population were willing to fly within one or two months of social distancing restrictions being lifted for them and Babin’s context gave even more urgency to the questions of the day. He ended his opening statements by stating that science must “characterize and inform” the risk and decisions that we make to engage in and scale air travel throughout the pandemic. 

Full Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said she found it “troubling” that there was not a national preparedness plan to address the threat of communicable disease through traveling. 

Ms. Krause was the first witness to deliver testimony and it revolved around the fact that serious infectious disease has been aided and accelerated via air travel and that what we saw with COVID-19 is not new, yet we still do not have a national preparedness plan for our air travel system. She went on to say that in December of 2015, GAO recommended that DOT work with relevant stakeholders to develop a national preparedness plan. It’s been more than four years and, according to Krause, DOT still maintains that DHS and HHS have legal authority over public safety and health in a way that it does not and thus they should lead an interagency effort.

Krause argued that because DOT has the deepest working relationships with the relevant stakeholders, it is the agency best equipped to handle this process. Krause also reminded everyone in attendance that as signatories to the International Civil Aviation Convention, the United States is required by international law to have a national preparedness plan (see Article 14). Krause also described the FAA’s research on communicable disease to date “limited” and state that the CDC-sponsored research on air transportation in conjunction with national preparedness plan are critical to protecting us for the next pandemic. 

Dr. Jones’ testimony rested on two ideas. First, that ventilation systems in aircraft cabins flush out all respiratory droplets, which he made undeniably clear, and that the most critical near-term research need is collection of the data and development of the tools needed to be able to quantitatively assess the risk of COVID-19 transmission on aircraft and efficacy of spread mitigation measures on the reducing said risk. We need to know what works and how well it works. Until then, everything that we do is being done on faith. Jones stressed this in the meeting because it is economically impractical to implement social distancing on flights, which means we need to know how well masks work so we can  sit next to each other safely on planes. 

The last witness was Dr. Hertzberg, who started out her testimony by detailing a study she conducted for Boeing called Fly Healthy, where she and her team found that one to two crew members or passengers will become infected as a result from contact with an infectious individual and that microbial communities on flights vary greatly from flight to flight. The major implication from Hertzberg was that unless you brought the crew and passengers in for a flight at least 4 hours early and had them all undergo nasal swabbing and use PCR to test them, it is not possible to guarantee that someone will not be infected by the virus on a plane trip. Dr. Hertzberg also explained that there were several knowledge gaps in research about COVID specifically and about just how communicable disease is transmitted in an airplane. For instance, Fly Healthy doesn’t give us any information about long haul flights, any flights outside of the US, or flights on double aisle planes. 

The questioning period had been mostly preempted by the testimonies as the witnesses oftentimes found themselves repeating statements that they had already made earlier in the hearing, but there were some exchanges that broadened the horizon of the discussion. 

Horn asked about the federal government’s role in funding the required research and where that responsibility lies. The witnesses generally agreed that it should be a partnership between federal and private entities because the skills and funds exist everywhere for these problems. 

When Babin asked if it was more dangerous to ride on planes than any other form of transportation, Dr. Hertzberg explained that it’s simply impossible to know because we don’t understand how people move on airplanes or have any reliable data to compare with other modes of transportation. 

Chairwoman Johnson asked what the primary research gaps were, to which Dr. Hertzberg answered the role of physical objects in the transmission of COVID-19. 

Despite the pervasive sense that there is still very much to know, Representative Ami Bera (D-CA) did give the witnesses a chance to put their minds to ease on something. When he asked about N95 masks, Dr. Hertzberg explains that when properly fitted, they do play the dual role of filtering what the wearer breathes in as well as protecting those around them, but that any cloth or surgical mask could do the latter. While there’s still a lot to learn about the new normal and COVID-19, the fact remains that the best thing we can do now is stay inside when we can and wear a mask when we cannot. 

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