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Congress Calls for Aviation-Specific Plan to Manage Disease Outbreaks

The Healthy Flights Act of 2021, which would require the U.S. Transportation Secretary to develop an aviation-sector plan for managing disease outbreaks, was introduced Thursday by leaders on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The legislation from Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), the committee’s chairman, and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the aviation subcommittee chairman, clarifies that the Federal Aviation Administration has the authority to impose requirements to protect passengers and airline workers during public health emergencies.   The measure also requires that people wear masks on airplanes and in airports, and that airline employees and some FAA personnel be given personal protective equipment during public health emergencies linked to respiratory diseases.

Representative DeFazio said the bill would provide “clear, consistent rules and guidelines that give flight and cabin crew the authority they need to keep passengers safe.”  He also called on the president to extend a transportation mask mandate, which is set to expire in May.

“The COVID-19 pandemic exposed serious flaws in the federal government’s preparedness to keep airline and airport workers and travelers safe amid a public health emergency,” he said. “And with tens of millions of people yet to be vaccinated, Congress still can and must do more to protect those on the frontlines of our aviation system from future pandemics like COVID-19.”

The FAA has resisted calls by lawmakers to require masks on planes and in airports, saying it viewed its role as a regulatory agency overseeing safety, not health.  This reluctance to act meant individual airlines and airports were left to establish their own mask policies.  On his first day in office, however, President Biden signed an order requiring masks on planes, buses and trains and at airports.

Representatives DeFazio and Larsen have said a national plan is critical to ensuring that the airline industry, federal health officials and other federal agencies are prepared to deal with future outbreaks.

The Healthy Flights Act also calls for additional study of the transmission of infectious diseases on airplanes and the creation of an FAA Center of Excellence on Infectious Disease Response and Prevention in Aviation.  The bill is co-sponsored by 15 other Democratic lawmakers and has the support of several industry groups, including the Airport Council International, the Coalition of Air Line Pilots Associations (CAPA) and Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.