Senate Panel Holds Highly Anticipated Hearing on Aviation and COVID

On May 6, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on “The State of the Aviation Industry: Examining the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The hearing was held in a style to allow social distancing among Senators and witnesses. (It also featured about half of the members joining by video thanks to the work of Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Amy Klobuchar  (D-MN) on the Rules Committee that allows for remote hearings.)

The witnesses included Nicholas Calio, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Airlines for America, Eric Fanning, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Aerospace Industries Association, Dr. Hilary Godwin ,the Dean of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, and Todd Hauptli, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Association of Airport Executives.

The hearing was highly anticipated because of the transformed state in which the passenger aviation sector now finds itself, and each of the industry representatives noted the staggering numbers. Fanning ticked through the thousands and thousands of jobs being lost in the aerospace sector since the lockdown. Calio mentioned that the airlines are losing between $350 and $400 million each day. Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) noted that planes are flying with 12 passengers on average and that half of the U.S. passenger aircraft fleet is currently sitting idle. A shocking chart in Hauptli’s written testimony shows a 93 percent drop in passengers traversing security checkpoints.

Given the enormity of the problem, it is no wonder that the hearing was so wide-ranging. The overall theme was on air passengers and what it might take to bring them back. But the ecosystem of aviation is vast and the experience of the airlines, the airports, the aerospace manufacturers, and the workforce all received attention. Several common themes emerged:

Bringing passengers back means ensuring safety. Godwin described some strategies for cleaning both airports and airplanes and well as social distancing approaches throughout passengers’ journeys including restrooms, rental car facilities, and the rail, taxi, and shared services that bring flyers to and from the airports. While fixing the basics is clearly needed to ensure passengers it is safe to fly, there were some different opinions as to whether those strategies should be national, uniform, and regulated, as Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA, the Committee’s Ranking member) proposed. Calio noted the safety measures the airlines are already taking but stated that distancing is an unsustainable business model for airlines. And, given the option, his members prefer voluntary guidelines rather than federal ones. Godwin confirmed that in the absence of federal regulations, strong guidance would still be helpful.

For the airports, Hauptli noted that measures to prevent the spread of the virus means a completely different travel experience than the ones passengers are used to now. Not only will airports be cleaner but he predicted a “touchless” travel experience for everything from check-in to security screening. Of course, that’s a multi-billion dollar endeavor that the airports don’t have operational (more on that below.) Hauptli also strongly supported Senator Ed Markey’s (D-MA) call for an “expert task force” made of up aviation, security, and public health officials to provide federal guidance on air travel after coronavirus.

There was also much discussion about the airlines’ role in contact tracing to monitor the whereabouts of potentially infected travelers. Health officials and the witnesses agreed that contact tracing is a critically important strategy to prevent the spread of disease. For example, if a person contracts a virus, health officials can contact others with whom they may have come in close contact such as workers or travelers on an airplane. But according to Godwin, only 75 percent of passenger name records (PNRs) have flyers’ telephone numbers and just 56 percent contain emails. The incompleteness undermines the data’s usefulness.

The challenge is that in the United States, contract tracing is done on the local level, is not standardized among jurisdictions, and is not shared among public health officials. A national response is clearly needed but who is responsible for collecting and maintaining this information is unclear. Calio laid out the practical and logistical challenge of having the air carriers collect, maintain, verify, and disseminate passenger data such as the fact that the airlines only sell about half of the airline tickets. The rest is done by travel agents and other actors. The airlines did build an app that could collect the information and Calio recommended gifting that to the federal government.

Senators also asked about certain airlines charging for extra space on planes (since abandoned) as well as complaints from their constituents about cancellation policies. Both those topics are well covered elsewhere.

More interesting were probes from Senators—particularly those in rural states—expressing anxiety about whether airlines will preserve service to their communities. Back in March, the federal government laid out minimum levels of service the airlines must maintain if they accepted coronavirus aid. Montana’s Senator Jon Tester wondered how can we expect places to demonstrate demand for air travel if that demand is being artificially held back because of restrictions such as social distancing. Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer made the case for continued support of the Essential Air Service (EAS) Program which provides subsidized service to rural communities. Calio noted that some of those EAS flights are completely empty. (On April 2, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced a temporary downsizing of the EAS subsidy program to reflect the reduced demand.)

For their part, Hauptli directly stated that airports are seeking federal help at least as large as they received in the CARES Act—about $10 billion. The airlines are not seeking additional federal funding and Calio noted that the federal funds they already received are a “bridge to the future.”

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