GAO Calls for Federal Leadership on Communicable Diseases in Air Travel

Concerns about the role of air travel in disease transmission have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stakeholders say more research is needed that looks at real-world situations and human behavior and could guide actions to protect public health.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says Congress should consider directing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop and implement a strategy to investigate communicable diseases in air travel, in coordination with other federal services and external partners.

Some research has already been conducted since the start of the pandemic. For example, Airbus, Boeing and Embraer issued a joint publication of separate computational fluid dynamics (CFD) research conducted by each manufacturer on their aircraft. While the methodologies differed slightly, each detailed simulation confirmed that aircraft airflow systems control the movement of particles in the cabin, limiting the spread of viruses. This is supported by findings from a 2020 Department of Defense and United Airlines study, which found that passengers who wear masks have a very low risk of contracting COVID-19 on planes, even during crowded flights.

Other research looked at the effect of different airline features—such as back-to-front boarding—on the risk of disease exposure. However, stakeholders interviewed by GAO described the need for more research involving real-world situations and human behavior. Additional research could help develop evidence-based mitigation measures, policy, and regulations to protect public health. Stakeholders cited several challenges, particularly a lack of federal leadership to facilitate interdisciplinary research and address gaps in conducting air travel communicable disease research. Stakeholders said the inability of investigators to access aircraft, airports or data also poses challenges to conducting the necessary research.

GAO found that several agencies have focused on those research areas most relevant to their priorities and mission. Such agencies include the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Transportation’s FAA, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). However, the government watchdog found that none of these agencies have undertaken efforts to promote much-needed research into communicable diseases in air travel more broadly. Officials at each of these agencies said a more coordinated federal approach to identifying and promoting relevant research could generate valuable information and inform policy development and guidance. In addition, leveraging the assets of various federal agencies could connect researchers with aviation actors in areas of expertise, provide clearer access to federal research funding, and help identify needed research across disciplines.

The FAA recognizes that it has broad authority to conduct and grant research on communicable diseases in air travel, but the agency has historically argued that this work falls outside its core responsibility for aviation safety. The FAA is of course currently grappling with 5G, drones and advanced air mobility, all of which affect safety in the national airspace. GAO notes, however, that the FAA has prior experience conducting and supporting such investigations, as well as strong aviation industry ties that are critical to advancing the required investigation. In particular, the GAO notes, the FAA has undertaken related research in the past—usually in response to legislative mandates—including work on the transmission of disease in aircraft cabins. Additionally, the Guardian believes that directing the development of a coordinated strategy would be consistent with the FAA’s efforts to develop national aviation readiness planin coordination with DHS and HHS, as GAO has repeatedly requested.

It is worth noting that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has proven the low frequency of transmission of COVID-19 in flight. Out of a total of 1.2 billion passengers, 44 cases of COVID-19 were reported in which transmission is believed to be related to flight travel.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened ongoing concerns about the role of air travel in spreading disease and raised questions about the safety of passengers and crew. More interdisciplinary research, especially involving human behavior and real-world situations, will allow stakeholders to better understand the risks of disease transmission in air travel. Such research could provide information on the effectiveness of various mitigation measures and contribute to the development of informed policy and requirements to protect public health.

GAO has determined that the FAA is unlikely to advance this research on its own initiative and therefore asks Congress to consider directing the FAA to develop and implement a strategy to identify and advance the required research for communicable diseases in air travel, in coordination with relevant federal agencies, such as DHS and HHS, and external partners. In line with best practices for interagency collaboration, GAO says that this strategy should, at a minimum, clearly define the roles and responsibilities of participating agencies, determine the resources needed, and document any relevant agreements .

Read the full report at GAO

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