Only federal rules can create passenger confidence in post-pandemic flying
Travelers United has written extensively about improving passenger confidence when flying. Now, two US Senators have joined the battle with the airlines and DOT. Senator Markey from Massachusetts and Sen. Blumenthal from Connecticut want federal rules that can be enforced rather than airline policies with no teeth. They are correct.
Airlines claim that they will ban passengers who do not comply with their policies about wearing masks. Of course, no passenger has been banned from a flight. Plus the airlines will not have uniform policies. This patchwork of different policies will not work.
The airlines’ disdain for any new regulation (even a temporary one) trumps even the chance to attract more passengers. Plus, airlines are supported by an administration that has publicly said, “No new federal rules.”
The Markey/Blumenthal letter outlines passenger protections
This following letter to US Department of Transportation (DOT), in coordination with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), demands that the federal system protect the health and safety of the flying public. These two Senators make it clear that federal rules are required. The full letter is HERE.
Dear Secretary Chao and Secretary Azar:
We once again urge the Department of Transportation (DOT), in coordination with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to immediately issue strong, nationwide rules to protect the health and safety of the flying public, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, we wrote to you expressing our concern that a patchwork of conflicting policies created by individual airlines and airports would endanger the health of travelers and front-line workers as the coronavirus spread.
Unfortunately, recent reports about passengers failing to wear face masks throughout flights, and the difficulty of social distancing with occupied middle seats, confirm our fears, and reinforce the need for urgent federal action to ensure that Americans can fly safely now and when the pandemic subsides.
As the country adjusts to the ongoing pandemic, and with some states beginning to reopen, travelers are slowly returning to the skies. Yet, federal leadership on airline safety has been absent, forcing airlines and airports to develop their own rules for ensuring coronavirus-related passenger and employee health and safety, including policies for facemasks for travelers, social distancing, and cleaning aircraft. Unfortunately, these voluntary protocols have created a patchwork of rules that leave significant safety gaps in our overall aviation system.
Moreover, enforcement of these private policies appears haphazard. According to one report, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, and United Airlines have issued directives instructing crewmembers to encourage, but not require, passengers to comply with social distancing and face mask policies on aircraft. Numerous travelers, meanwhile, have reported their distress at seeing other passengers fail to wear masks despite airline requirements, or their dismay that airlines are not actually leaving middle seats open as some had promised.
We are alarmed, but not surprised, that these health risks remain in the absence of federal leadership. As we warned in our initial letter on this subject, a patchwork of voluntary rules, issued without the enforcement authority of the federal government, simply cannot address the interconnected and widespread health risks of a global pandemic.
For these reasons, we introduced S. 3681, legislation requiring DOT, HHS, and the Department of Homeland Security to establish a joint task force — advised by aviation, security, and public health experts — to develop recommended requirements, plans, and guidelines to ensure safe and healthy air travel during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. We were happy to see the bill recently advance out of the Senate Commerce Committee with unanimous support, and we hope to see the Senate take action without delay. The recent reports about a lack of enforcement for airline policies underscore the need for this task force, as well as its recommendations for consistent, nationwide policies to protect the flying public.
However, DOT and HHS need not wait for our bill to become law to begin tackling known health risks in air travel. We specifically urge you to promulgate rules that will immediately:
- require face masks for all individuals engaged in air travel;
- ensure that front-line crew members are provided with personal protective equipment on the job;
- establish uniform protocols to support social distancing in airports and on airplanes; and
- mandate strong standards for disinfecting and sanitizing aircraft cabins and cockpits after each flight.
Although airlines and airports are acting with the best of intentions, air travel is an inherently interstate and international issue that demands stronger leadership from the federal government. We believe the safety of the flying public requires consistent and enforceable rules from your agencies, and we urge you to act without further delay.
Thank you for your continued attention to this important matter.
Travelers United’s prediction:
The airlines will be begging the FAA and DOT to create temporary federal rules. These new regulations will allow passengers to gain confidence in flying once again. Only with federal support will the airlines have sufficient enforcement power to guarantee passenger observation of the needed rules. Time will tell.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 11 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.