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Coronavirus on board? Senators raise air travel concerns

Subcommittee presses for more information on air passengers and decontamination of planes, as president says air travel is safe

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., asked health and transportation officials at a hearing Wednesday, "Did we not learn anything" from battling previous viruses.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., asked health and transportation officials at a hearing Wednesday, "Did we not learn anything" from battling previous viruses. (Tom Williams CQ Roll Call file photo)

On the same day that the House approved emergency spending in response to the coronavirus, senators expressed frustration over challenges to securing air travel against the disease that has killed at least 11 Americans.

Also on Wednesday, President Donald Trump said at a meeting with airline chief executives at the White House that it’s his view that it remains safe to fly to U.S. and international destinations still being serviced by major U.S. carriers.

“I think where these people are flying, it’s safe to fly, and large portions of the world are very safe to fly, so we don’t want to say anything other than that,” the president said. “Yes it’s safe, absolutely.”

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During a hearing Wednesday, members of Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Aviation and Space pressed federal transportation and health officials for better airline passenger information and how the department could ensure planes were properly decontaminated.

“I can’t believe we’re having some of the conversations we’re having now, after having faced other global outbreaks such as H1N1 and SARS,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. “Did we not learn anything about the processes and procedures from those previous diseases?”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the committee whose state has lost 10 people to the virus, seemed stunned when Stephen Redd, director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the virus could live for up to a day on surfaces, including those in aircraft. She seemed more stunned when officials could not tell her the protocol for decontaminating airplanes.

Joel Szabat, acting undersecretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the agency does not have statutory authority to determine how best to decontaminate such surfaces. Instead, he said the statutory authority for developing such protocols falls under the jurisdiction of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The CDC could offer guidance but lacks statutory authority, said Redd.

“I think this is something we need to tackle right away,” Cantwell said. “We need to understand what we are saying to the flying public about what the airlines should be doing, what we should be doing to create the best most positive environment for air transportation to continue.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, chair of the subcommittee, was more blunt.

“If there are legal authorities that any of your agencies need right now to protect the public’s health and safety and prevent the spread of the virus, tell us and tell us quickly,” he said.

The Trump administration has implemented a series of travel restrictions and advisories, which Szabat said has been a “remarkably effective first layer of containment.”

Flights coming in from China go through 11 specific airports where passengers are screened, and any flight with passengers from Iran is routed through those airports as well.

But lawmakers are increasingly skeptical that the travel restrictions would continue to contain the infection, expressing concern about the lack of tests for the virus and the idea that it could be contained primarily by monitoring those who’d been in countries where the disease was widespread.

“You’ve got a person in an airplane with coronavirus so they come in and clean the airplane and somebody else comes in with the coronavirus and you haven’t done a damn thing,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., asked whether the federal government could better collect airplane passenger information so passengers could be contacted if they’d been on the same aircraft as someone with the virus.

The Department of Transportation has said it would be hard to collect such information because third-party ticket sellers, such as Travelocity, don’t always collect it or provide it to airlines. But Airlines for America, an industry group representing U.S airlines, has offered to pay to develop an app or website to get verifiable, accurate contact data for passengers, saying they’d give the site to the federal government for their use.

Szabat said airlines had told him it would likely take 6 to 12 months to implement that as a solution, but if the Airlines for America plan is feasible, then “that’s a great solution.”

Tester, meanwhile, asked whether there would be domestic flight restrictions if the virus spread in the U.S.

“I don’t know,” Szabat said. “We’re outside the playbook.”

At the White House earlier, Trump was asked whether the government would consider assistance to the airline industry to help with lost business.

“Don’t ask that question, please, ’cause they haven’t asked it,” Trump said. “So I don’t want you to give them any ideas.”

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