GAO Calls for Federal Leadership on Infectious Diseases in Air Travel

GAO Calls for Federal Leadership on Infectious Diseases in Air Travel

During the Covid-19 pandemic, concerns about the importance of air traffic in disease transmission have intensified. Stakeholders say more research into real-world situations and human behavior is needed and could guide efforts 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 for infectious disease research in air travel in coordination with other federal agencies and external partners.

Some studies have already been conducted since the beginning of the pandemic. For example, Airbus, Boeing and Embraer issued a joint publication on separate computational fluid dynamics (CFD) studies each manufacturer conducted on their aircraft. Although the methodologies differed slightly, each detailed simulation confirmed that the aircraft’s airflow systems were indeed controlling the movement of particles in the cabin, limiting the spread of viruses. This is supported by the results of 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 airplanes, even during full flights.

Other studies have examined the impact of different airline operations, such as rear-to-front boarding, on the risk of illness. However, stakeholders interviewed by GAO described the need for more research related to 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 promote interdisciplinary research and address gaps in research on airborne infectious diseases. Stakeholders said that researchers’ inability to access planes, airports or data also creates problems for conducting the necessary research.

GAO found that several agencies have focused on those areas of research that are most consistent with their priorities and mission. Such agencies include the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Transportation, the FAA, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But the government watchdog found that none of these agencies had made any effort to promote needed research into infectious diseases in air travel more widely. Officials at each of these agencies said a more coordinated federal approach to identifying and directing relevant research could generate valuable information and inform policy development and guidance. In addition, leveraging funds from different federal agencies could connect researchers with aviation stakeholders in different 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 sponsor research on infectious diseases in air travel, but the agency has historically considered this work to be outside of its primary responsibility for aviation safety. Of course, the FAA is currently grappling with 5G, drones and advanced air mobility, all of which affect the safety of the nation’s airspace. GAO notes, however, that the FAA has prior experience in conducting and supporting such research, as well as strong aviation industry ties, which are critical to advancing the necessary research. In particular, GAO notes that the FAA has conducted 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 national aviation preparedness planin coordination with DHS and HHS, as GAO has repeatedly called for.

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

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened ongoing concerns about the role of air travel in the spread of disease and raised questions about the safety of passengers and crew. More interdisciplinary research, especially related to human behavior and real-world situations, would allow stakeholders to better understand the risks of disease transmission in air travel. Such studies could provide insight into the effectiveness of various mitigation measures and inform the development of evidence-based policies and requirements to protect public health.

GAO has determined that it is unlikely that the FAA will promote this research on its own initiative, and therefore asks Congress to consider allowing the FAA to develop and implement a strategy to identify and promote needed research on airborne infectious diseases in coordination with appropriate federal agencies. agencies such as DHS and HHS and external partners. Consistent with leading practices for interagency cooperation, GAO says, at a minimum, this strategy should clearly define the roles and responsibilities of participating agencies, identify the resources needed, and document all relevant contracts.

Read the full report at the GAO website

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