State of the Aviation Industry Hearing

In a hearing on April 21, the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation, Safety, Operations, and Innovation assessed the state of the aviation industry and the impact of federal aid, as well as the current roadblocks to safe service restoration.

With the U.S. air transportation sector valued at a total of $779 billion, it comes as no surprise that restoring domestic and international air travel weighs heavy on the minds of federal legislators.

Witnesses included (click their name for their written testimony):

Subcommittee chair Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) opened the hearing with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), ranking member of the subcommittee, by relaying the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the aviation industry. At its lowest point, passenger travel fell 90% and barely 100,000 daily passengers were flying at this point last year. Both made sure to note that certain federal actions, such as the Payroll Support Program (PSP) and Aviation Loan Assistance Program guaranteed essential travel services and saved the livelihoods of aviation workforce families. “It is not an exaggeration to say that without it, tens of thousands of aviation professionals would have lost their jobs, and this industry would have been irreparably damaged,” said Cruz.

Trouble on the Tarmac:

After thanking the committee for their time and help, the witnesses described the depressed state of the airline industry. Charlene Reynolds (Sky Harbor) noted that total passenger numbers at her airport (PHX) were down by 53 percent, and non-aeronautical revenue by 36 percent.  Reynolds also emphasized that airport concessionaires—30 percent of which are small businesses—have also had to cease operations due to lack of traffic, particularly business travel. Nick Calio (Airlines for America) painted an even more dire picture nationwide. Passenger volumes were down 95% last May and companies were losing $10-$12 billion a month. Sara Nelson (AFA-CWA) also noted that although congressional action helped workers avoid furloughs, job losses or changes in hourly rates, around 4,000 flight attendants are still not qualified to fly yet due to new flying procedures.

However, domestic passenger traffic is increasing. When questioned by committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) on the current state of passenger traffic at PHX, Reynolds stated that traffic capacity is returning on some days to 70 percent compared to 2020, although traffic remains consistently around 50 percent. Additionally, both Reynolds and Nelson stated that lack of traffic opens other opportunities for airport revitalization. For instance, airports could be used as vaccination sites or clinics, due to their size and large spaces. 

Current & Future Mitigation Strategies:

Every attending witness emphasized the importance of continuing current COVID-19 mitigation practices, with some caveats. Calio stated that with current mitigation systems in place, including advanced ventilation systems, masks, and thorough cleaning techniques, the chances of transmitting COVID-19 by sitting next to someone on a plane is 0.003 percent. Additionally, Dr. Leonard Marcus (T.H. Chan School of Public Health) noted that rising vaccination rates, following the guidelines in official reports, as well as “swarm leadership” can seriously reduce the rates of transmission in airports and on airplanes. The five principles Marcus stated would help leaders mitigate COVID-19 are:

  1. Unity of mission
  2. Generosity of spirit
  3. Staying in your lane
  4. Denying ego and not shifting blame
  5. Creating a foundation of trust

Those five principles, combined with continuing vaccinations, expansion of testing facilities, and mask mandates, will ensure that public venues are COVID-free. Marcus suggested that those interested in viewing transmission research visit the Aviation Public Health Initiative for more information.

Nelson, Calio, and Marcus also requested that the federal government extend the public mask mandate through May 11 for the sake of passenger and industry workforce safety. Some public health components may even become permanent. When questioned by Sen. Warnock (D-GA) on the wisdom of Delta’s recruitment of its first ever Chief Health Officer, Calio pointed out that Delta is a good example of an airline attempting to be number one in hygiene and health. Some regulations, however, were criticized. Specifically, Cruz asked Marcus on the wisdom of the middle seat ban on flights. When asked by Cruz on whether a recent CDC study supported the ban, Marcus claimed that the experiment in question cannot inform public policy due to its lack of variable consideration.

Points of Turbulence: 

However, although some witnesses expressed support for voluntary vaccine passports, digital verification passes, and opening of airports as vaccination and testing sites, no witnesses expressed support for mandatory vaccine passports or proof of negative COVID-19 tests for travel. If vaccine passports are being seriously discussed as an option, Nelson stated that they must be temporary, focused exclusively on COVID-19, and must be voluntary lest they become discriminatory. Calio echoed similar sentiments when discussing a digital document that could be accessible by smartphone. Nevertheless, Calio did mention that a digital document would be convenient for travelers heading to a high-risk area, or for general international travel.

In addition to vaccine passports, witnesses were asked about the utility of installing temperature monitoring infrastructure in airports. When Cantwell asked Marcus on whether temperature recording equipment would be useful for detecting passengers infected with COVID-19, he noted that not only can infected passengers be asymptomatic, but that there is always a possibility of detecting a false-positive. Instead, Marcus claimed that cheap, reliable, and quick processes to ascertain the existence of COVID-19 in passengers will work better.

Perhaps the biggest point of controversy in the hearing erupted between Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Calio. Markey, after acknowledging the major problems COVID-19 made for the industry, pointed out that instead of offering cash refunds for cancelled flights, numerous airlines instead offered temporary travel credits with expiration dates. Citing a Wall Street Journal article, Markey emphasized the fact that the four biggest airlines had over $10 billion in unused travel credits at the end of 2020. Although Calio noted that vouchers have been expanded when asked for and that change fees have been eliminated, Markey requested that airlines fix this issue the “easy way” by voluntarily extending flight credits indefinitely. Otherwise, he would be forced to go to the Department of Transportation to request further action. When pressed, Calio did not believe that travel credits should be extended indefinitely.

The Flight Path Forward:

Witnesses had a few ideas for moving forward. Calio and Nelson stated that a clear, well-publicized roadmap to recovery that telegraphs when locations will open as well as informs the status of workforce vaccination would be helpful, particularly for international aviation. Calio pointed out that profitability for airlines and airports will be hard to obtain without business or international travel. When asked by Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) on how organizations like Brand USA can help, Calio stated that, “Brand USA can do whatever it is doing and keep doing that, but if we don’t open up international markets, in rational, methodical, transparent ways, it’s going to be meaningless.”

Reynolds also asked for further infrastructure investment to help with short-term social distancing and long-term modernization efforts. In addition to federal infrastructure funding, Reynolds called for raising the cap on the passenger facility charge (PFC) as a long-term funding solution. Funds for infrastructure investment would improve both system efficiency and passenger convenience. At the moment, Reynolds predicted that the airline industry will not return to pre-pandemic capacity until 2024.

When questioned by committee ranking member Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), Marcus noted that he was unsure of when airlines will get to a “no-mask” point, and that he would still recommend wearing masks on a plane and in airports for the foreseeable future to deny the growth of any variances. “We as leaders,” Marcus said, “can have an impact on the crisis.” Not only that, but Nelson pointed out that “aviation is simply not coming back if we don’t stamp out the pandemic everywhere.”

If you would like to listen to the hearing, please follow the link here.

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