In Letter to Secretary Chao, Cantwell Calls for Uniform National Social Distancing Guidelines for Aviation Sector

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao urging the Department of Transportation to issue clear, uniform national social distancing guidelines for the aviation sector to keep airline workers and the traveling public safe amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The federal government, starting with the Department of Transportation, must issue clear and uniform guidelines on social distancing for passengers and other public health measures,” Senator Cantwell wrote. “The Department’s guidance should clearly lead the airlines to either keep middle or adjacent seats open, or limit capacity of aircraft to a level that allows adequate social distancing.”

Today’s letter follows a similar letter Cantwell sent on May 11 to the White House Coronavirus Task Force. On May 6, the Commerce Committee held a hearing on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the aviation industry, where Cantwell and other members of the committee heard from public health experts and members of the aviation industry about the importance of national guidance about appropriate and necessary reopening procedures.

During that hearing, Dr. Hillary Godwin, the Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, stressed the need for these guidelines in her written testimony: “Key strategies that can help to reduce the risk of re-seeding the pandemic [include]… [d]eveloping national regulations or guidance for US airports and flights that originate from or terminate in the United States. While most public health measures are left to the discretion of states, it would be extremely difficult to communicate and enforce a patchwork set of regulations and guidance for travelers going from one state to another or entering the US and passing through different states,” Godwin said. Video highlights from Godwin’s testimony can be found here.

In her letter, Senator Cantwell pointed out that since Dr. Godwin’s call for these guidelines, “It has been almost two weeks and the Task Force has not provided any guidelines to airlines or airports.  With approximately 20,000 new cases per day, time is of the essence.”

“I commend the airlines that have taken action to ensure that passengers are not seated in middle seats or have otherwise provided for additional distancing. Yet, there are reports of full flights, and it has become all too common to see pictures of crowded flights shared by worried passengers,” Cantwell wrote to Secretary Chao. “To be effective, these guidelines need to be uniform.  The public expects no less.  As air travelers gradually return, they must feel confident that they will be safe from the coronavirus.  A consistent approach by airlines, guided by federal agencies, will be more effective in thwarting the spread of COVID-19 than if no guidelines are in place.” Note: Some examples of passengers posting about full flights can be found herehere, and here.

The full text of the letter to Secretary Chao can be found HERE and below.

###

Dear Secretary Chao:

On May 6, 2020, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the aviation industry.  Following the hearing, I sent a letter to the White House Coronavirus Task Force calling for the establishment of clear, uniform, national COVID-19 guidelines for the aviation sector to keep the traveling public and workers safe during the coronavirus crisis.  It has been almost two weeks and the Task Force has not provided any guidelines to airlines or airports.  With approximately 20,000 new cases per day, time is of the essence.  Today, I am calling on the Department of Transportation to issue guidelines to airlines and airports consistent with recommendations made by public health experts.  

At the hearing, Dr. Hilary Godwin, the Dean of Public Health at the University of Washington, called for a net of public health protections, including minimizing contact between passengers.  As Dr. Godwin noted, “[W]hat we know from public health is that it’s that close proximity of individuals for an extended period of time that creates the greatest risk of transmission.”  I commend the airlines that have taken action to ensure that passengers are not seated in middle seats or have otherwise provided for additional distancing.  

Yet, there are reports of full flights, and it has become all too common to see pictures of crowded flights shared by worried passengers.  To be effective, these guidelines need to be uniform.  The public expects no less.  As air travelers gradually return, they must feel confident that they will be safe from the coronavirus.  A consistent approach by airlines, guided by federal agencies, will be more effective in thwarting the spread of COVID-19 than if no guidelines are in place. 

The federal government, starting with the Department of Transportation, must issue clear and uniform guidelines on social distancing for passengers and other public health measures.  The Department’s guidance should clearly lead the airlines to either keep middle or adjacent seats open, or limit capacity of aircraft to a level that allows adequate social distancing.  Prior to flight, airlines and airport operators should cooperate to maintain physical distancing – a minimum six feet – as much as possible during check-in, security check, pre-boarding, and boarding.  Other guidelines that follow the science-based recommendations of public health experts should also be considered as necessary.

While no one measure in and of itself will solve this problem, protections such as social distancing can have a significant impact on the traveling public’s safety and confidence.  The traveling public deserves and should expect your leadership during this public health crisis, and the aviation industry is too important to our economy and the national interest to be operating without clear and consistent federal guidance. Thank you in advance for your prompt attention to this request.

Sincerely,

Maria Cantwell 

Ranking Member 

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*