U.S. Senate Holds Coronavirus Hearing as Disease Spreads

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) convened a hearing of the Subcommittee on Aviation and Space to discuss the coronavirus effects on the transportation system. The March 4 hearing was titled  “From SARS to Coronavirus: Examining the Role of Global Aviation in Containing the Spread of Infectious Disease.” Subcommittee members were particularly interested in examining the role of the air transportation industry in stemming the spread of the novel coronavirus disease.

Witnesses included three representatives from relevant branches of the U.S. government:

  • The Honorable Joel Szabat, Acting Under Secretary for Policy, U.S. Department of Transportation (Written testimony)
  • Stephen Redd, Director, Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (Written testimony)
  • William Ferrara, Executive Assistant Commissioner for Operations Support, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (Written testimony)

The hearing discussed the current and potential future impacts on the U.S. and global aviation system. According to Szabat, daily travelers from China to the U.S. have decreased from 15,000 to under 1,000. The witnesses said that domestic air travel is down, with a reported drop in bookings and cuts in flights. (On the day after the hearing, Southwest Airlines, which is almost entirely domestic, announced that its first quarter revenue will drop $200-300 million because of reduced travel demand.)

Szabat said that the SARS epidemic of 2003 can provide insights into how the “public reconsiders travel” in the face of communicable disease. In that case, travel in the U.S. was down by 50 percent at its peak, but recovered within two months.

USDOT has screened over 50,000 passengers arriving from China and other coronavirus-affected countries over the past few weeks. All these passengers are required to enter through one of 11 airports in the U.S. designated as screening centers. Any foreigner who has visited China and Iran in the past 14 days are prohibited from traveling to the U.S. Those that have visited South Korea or Italy are subject to additional screening. These rules apply both to regularly scheduled commercial aircraft and chartered aircraft, although witnesses did not know how these restrictions applied to private aircraft. More flight restrictions are “on the table,” according to Szabat.

One of the barriers to effectively combating virus spread via air travel is that good data on passenger information is difficult to obtain. Ideally the CDC and other government agencies would have all passenger contact information so if a contagious person was found to be on a flight, they could contact those that might also get infected. But, according to witnesses, contact data maintained by the airlines is less than 25 percent accurate in part because many bookings are conducted through third parties. The airlines and government officials are exploring creating a third-party website and secure mobile app to collect such data, but that effort could take weeks and witnesses openly wondered if it was technically feasible.

Sea and air cargo is operating without restriction, even though demand has been reduced because of work stoppages at major Chinese factories. (U.S. exports are now being affected because the slowdown of imports from China has now translated into a shortage of cargo containers to send back west.) The virus cannot spread via packages, products, or mail. But members were concerned about the safety of air cargo pilots and crew. Regulations require that crew members rest between flights, and rest does not count when on the airplane. That means that crew members must sleep off the aircraft, potentially exposing them to the virus. Members offered the idea of possibility to allow dual crews and rest on board to be counted on a temporary basis.

Much of the hearing allowed members to ask basic questions of the coronavirus disease and its spread to Redd. But one question in particular applied to transportation largely, which is how long the virus can survive on surfaces. Redd said that it was possible for the virus to survive up to 24 hours on certain surfaces. Witnesses stressed that a major effort for public and private sector transportation entities is sanitation, and stressed good hygiene and other precautions.

A recording of the hearing can be found here.

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