GAO Calls for Federal Leadership on Infectious Diseases in Air Transportation

Concerns about the role of air transport in disease transmission have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stakeholders say more research involving real-world situations and human behavior is needed and could guide action 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 to investigate communicable diseases in air travel, in coordination with other federal agencies and external partners.

Some research has already been conducted since the beginning of the pandemic. For example, Airbus, Boeing and Embraer have issued a joint publication of individual computational fluid dynamics (CFD) studies conducted by each manufacturer on their aircraft. Although the methodologies differed slightly, each detailed simulation confirmed that the aircraft’s airflow systems did indeed 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 mask-wearing passengers are at very low risk of contracting COVID-19 on airplanes, even on crowded flights.

Other research has examined the effect of various airline operations — such as boarding the plane from the back to the 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 guidance to facilitate interdisciplinary research and address gaps, for conducting infectious disease research in air transportation. Stakeholders said the researchers’ inability to access planes, airports or data also posed a challenge to conducting 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 watchdog found that none of those agencies had made efforts to more broadly develop the necessary research into infectious diseases in air travel. Officials at each of these agencies said a more coordinated federal approach to identifying and advancing relevant research could generate valuable information and inform policy and guidance development. In addition, leveraging assets of various 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 transportation, but the agency has historically maintained that this work is 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 safety in the nation’s airspace. However, GAO points out that the FAA has prior experience in conducting and supporting such research, as well as strong connections in the aviation industry, which are critical to advancing the necessary research. In particular, the GAO noted, the FAA has undertaken related research in the past — usually in response to statutory mandates — including work on the transmission of disease in airplane cabins. Additionally, the Authority 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 transmission of COVID-19 during flight. Out of a total of 1.2 billion passengers, 44 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in which transmission is believed to be related to air travel.

Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened ongoing concerns about the role of air transport in the spread of disease and raised questions about the safety of passengers and crew. More interdisciplinary research, especially involving human behavior and real-world 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 policy and requirements to protect public health.

GAO has determined that it is unlikely that the FAA will 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 infectious diseases in air transportation, in coordination with appropriate federal agencies, such as DHS and HHS, and external partners. Consistent with best practices for interagency cooperation, GAO says that 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 at GAO

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