March 5, 2020

The ongoing spread of COVID-19 across the country and around the world led the U.S. Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Aviation and Space to examine the role of the global aviation industry in mitigating the spread of the virus.

“COVID-19 is a real and serious challenge, [and] we need cool heads and fact-based decisions; not panic, not hysteria,” said chairman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) at the March 4 hearing, “From SARS to Coronavirus: Examining the Role of Global Aviation in Containing the Spread of Infectious Disease.”

Ranking subcommittee member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) noted recent cases of the virus at a nursing home in her state, which resulted in seven fatalities. A visitor to that facility then traveled home to North Carolina onboard a commercial airliner, and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.

“This underscores the importance of making sure the aviation sector is also prepared and how we mitigate the impacts of virus spread,” she said. “After all, there are more than 44,000 flights in this country every day, and more than 2.7 million people fly in and out of our US airports.”

While the hearing focused almost exclusively on commercial airlines, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) raised concerns that “private aircraft are another loophole that’s in the system.” However, witnesses downplayed that threat.

“I can speak personally [that] for charter aircraft, we apply exactly the same rules to them as we do to any commercial aircraft,” said Joel Szabat, DOT assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs. “So if you’re coming from China, or now from Iran… you would have to land at one of the 11 airports [approved to receive travelers from COVID-19 hotspots].”

William Ferrara, executive assistant commissioner for operations support with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, noted such travelers immediately receive secondary screening upon entering the country, including inquiries about their health status and recording their body temperature.

“CWMD [the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction division] established this capability in response to the Ebola virus threat,” Ferrara added. “These actions ensured a trained, vetted and badged workforce was ready to rapidly deploy to support the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. DHS was able to use this established capability to quickly address the threat of COVID-19.”

“It’s likely that we’ll see some communities more highly affected, while others remain virus free,” said Dr. Stephen Redd, director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the CDC. “We appreciate that Americans are taking this threat seriously and continuing to seek information about how to be prepared.”