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House Dems Ask the Government Accountability Office To Study the Risks of Air Travel in a Pandemic

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As COVID-19 continues to ravage large swaths of the U.S. economy, two House Democrats on the Transportation Committee are asking the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review the potential risks of flying during a pandemic. 

In a letter to the agency, Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rep. Rick Larson (D-Wash.) requested that several studies be done to more clearly understand the risks associated with flying in a pandemic.

They noted that since the pandemic began, more than 260,000 Americans have died from the virus, and air travel has dropped 90%.

However, they said, “Unfortunately, these losses do not negate the fact that air travel, more than any other mode of transportation, has the greatest potential to carry this disease from one part of the world to another.”

They went on to argue that until a vaccine is approved, it is essential for the airline business to “better understanding of how diseases, particularly those that are airborne, spread through air travel and identifying technologies and practices that can help mitigate disease transmission.”

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The letter also noted that in 2015, the GAO recommended that the Department of Transportation, Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Homeland Security craft a “national aviation preparedness plan for communicable disease outbreaks.”

However, no plan was created. Additionally, the lawmakers said that “aviation stakeholders” have argued the lack of such a plan “led to some of the confusion and chaos at certain airports” at the beginning of the outbreak. 

First, the lawmakers requested that the GAO “conduct a review of recent government, academic, and industry research on disease transmission via air travel.”

The second review should “identify the roles and responsibilities of various authorities at the local, state, and Federal levels, as well as the roles and responsibilities of private and public bodies such as airports, airlines, and their contractors, in controlling disease transmission through air travel.”

And a third review should “undertake an assessment of the aviation industry’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report should provide lessons learned by aviation regulators and stakeholders that could assist with preparedness planning.”

While health officials have encouraged Americans to avoid flying during the holiday season, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly says they “should” fly. 

“The problem is not being on the airplane. The problem is what you do off the airplane, quite frankly,” he said, adding, “The challenge is when the families get together, and they’re not wearing their mask, and they’re having dinner and drinks and whatnot. Those are all very high risk.”

He went on to say it is “completely safe” as he noted that passengers are seated forward, the air is recirculated every two to three minutes, and the air is filtered through a “hospital quality” filter.

However, health experts have not come to a universal decision that it is entirely safe to fly during a pandemic. 

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