Concerns about the role of air travel in disease transmission intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stakeholders say more research is needed involving real-world situations and human behavior and could guide actions 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 research on communicable diseases in air travel, in coordination with other agencies federal and external partners.
Some research has already been conducted since the start of the pandemic. For example, Airbus, Boeing and Embraer have published a joint publication of separate research on computational fluid dynamics (CFDs) conducted by each manufacturer on their aircraft. Although the methodologies differed slightly, each detailed simulation confirmed that aircraft airflow systems control the movement of particles in the cabin, limiting the spread of viruses. This is supported by findings from a 2020 Department of Defense and United Airlines study that found passengers wearing masks have a very low risk of contracting COVID-19 on airplanes, even during full flights.
Other research has looked at the effect of various air operations, such as boarding aircraft from rear to front, on the risk of disease exposure. However, GAO stakeholders interviewed described the need for further research involving real-world situations and human behavior. Further research could inform the development of evidence-based mitigation measures, policies and regulations to protect public health. Stakeholders cited several challenges, most notably the lack of federal leadership to facilitate interdisciplinary research and fill gaps, in conducting research on communicable diseases in air travel. Stakeholders said that researchers’ inability to access aircraft, airports or data also poses challenges for performing the necessary research.
GAO found that several agencies focused on those research areas most relevant to their priorities and mission. Such agencies include the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Transportation’s FAA, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But the government regulator found that none of these agencies have undertaken efforts to carry out the necessary research into communicable diseases in air travel more broadly. Officials from each of these agencies said a more coordinated federal approach to identifying and advancing relevant research could generate valuable information and inform policy development and orientation. Additionally, deploying resources from various federal agencies could connect researchers with aviation stakeholders across all areas of expertise, provide clearer access to federal research funding, and help identify research needed across disciplines. .
The FAA acknowledges that it has broad authority to conduct and sponsor research into communicable diseases in air travel, but the agency has historically argued that this work falls outside its primary responsibility for aviation safety. The FAA is obviously right now grappling with 5G, drones and advanced air mobility, all of which impact safety in the national airspace. The GAO points out, however, that the FAA has prior experience conducting and supporting such research, as well as strong links with the aviation industry critical to advancing the necessary research. Notably, GAO notes, the FAA has undertaken related research in the past, usually in response to legal warrants, including work on transmitting disease 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 requested several times by the GAO.
It is worth noting that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has demonstrated the low incidence of COVID-19 transmission in flight. Out of a total of 1.2 billion passengers, 44 cases of COVID-19 were reported in which the transmission is believed to have been associated with air travel.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified 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, particularly involving human behavior and real-world situations, would allow stakeholders to better understand the risks of disease transmission during 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 carry out 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 necessary research on communicable diseases. in air travel, in coordination with appropriate federal agencies, such as DHS and HHS, and external partners. In line with core practices for inter-agency collaboration, GAO says this strategy should, at a minimum, clearly identify the roles and responsibilities of participating agencies, determine the necessary resources, and document any relevant agreements.
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