GAO calls for federal leadership on communicable diseases in air travel – HS Today

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

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

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

Other research has looked at the effect of different flight operations, such as boarding aircraft from back to front, 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 inform the development of evidence-based mitigation measures, policies and regulations to protect public health. Stakeholders cited several challenges, particularly the lack of federal leadership to facilitate interdisciplinary research and fill gaps, to conduct research on communicable diseases in air travel. Stakeholders said that the inability of researchers to access planes, airports or data also poses problems in carrying out the necessary research.

GAO has found that several agencies have focused on research areas most relevant to their priorities and mission. These agencies include the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the FAA of the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But the government watchdog found that none of these agencies had undertaken efforts to advance needed research into communicable diseases in air travel more widely. Officials from each of these agencies said a more coordinated federal approach to identifying and advancing relevant research could generate valuable insights and inform policy development and direction. Additionally, using the assets of various federal agencies could connect researchers with aviation stakeholders in all areas of expertise, provide clearer access to federal funding for research, and help identify research needs in different disciplines.

The FAA acknowledges that it has broad authority to conduct and sponsor research into communicable diseases in air travel, but the agency has always maintained that such work falls outside of its primary responsibility for aviation safety. The FAA is of course currently grappling with 5G, drones, and advanced air mobility, all of which affect security in national airspace. The GAO stresses, however, that the FAA has previous experience conducting and supporting such research, as well as strong ties to the aviation industry that are essential to advancing the necessary research. In particular, the GAO notes, the FAA has undertaken related research in the past — usually in response to statutory mandates — including work on disease transmission in aircraft cabins. Additionally, the watchdog believes that leading the development of a coordinated strategy would be consistent with the FAA’s efforts to develop a national aviation preparedness planin coordination with DHS and HHS, as the GAO has repeatedly requested.

It should be noted that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has demonstrated the low incidence of in-flight transmission of COVID-19. Of a total of 1.2 billion passengers, 44 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in which transmission was believed to be associated with air travel.

Nonetheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified lingering concerns about air travel’s role in spreading disease and raised questions about passenger and crew safety. More interdisciplinary research, particularly involving human behavior and real-life situations, would allow stakeholders to better understand the risks of disease transmission in air travel. Such research could provide insight into the effectiveness of various mitigation measures and inform the development of evidence-based policies and requirements to protect public health.

The 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 necessary research on communicable diseases in air travel, in coordination with the competent federal authorities. agencies, such as DHS and HHS, and external partners. Consistent with best practices for interagency collaboration, GAO says this strategy should, at a minimum, clearly identify the roles and responsibilities of participating agencies, determine the resources needed, and document any relevant agreements.

Read the full report on GAO

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