Reopening America's skies: How to fly safely in the COVID-19 era

Reopening America's skies: How to fly safely in the COVID-19 era
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During times of crisis, our country’s leaders are expected to make informed decisions to keep the public safe and communicate those decisions clearly to gain its confidence. Right now, Americans are faced with a deadly aviation threat. It is not, as in the past two decades, an international terrorist plot that must be foiled. It is the widespread COVID-19 public health crisis. 

What makes this threat so different from a terrorist attack is the invisible nature of the virus. It has no mastermind, no ideology, no identified targets and no predetermined timelines, only an unknown number of literal sleeper cells. Our national response to COVID-19 needs to be specific, but limited, as it has been to the threats that preceded it.  

By now, most Americans are familiar with the U.S. Transportation and Security Administration’s (TSA) 3-1-1 Liquids Rule. It requires air travelers who wish to pack liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes into their carry-on luggage to place them into individual containers no bigger than 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) and put those containers into one resealable quart-sized bag.  The rule originated in reaction to a thwarted terrorist plot in 2006, in which the plotters sought to use liquid explosives to blow up commercial airplanes flying from Britain to the United States.  

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Upon learning of the plot, U.S. security officials immediately responded by requiring all international and domestic air travelers to pack liquids, regardless of type or quantity, into their checked luggage. As they learned more about the threat and recognized the need to balance mitigation with some semblance of normalcy, these security officials developed the 3-1-1 rule. It was a specific, but limited, set of actions by all air travelers to enhance the collective safety of the flying public.  

As the national conversation shifts toward how and when to reopen the country in the wake of COVID-19, it is important to remember how roles and responsibilities will help determine the success or failure of our efforts. Governors and mayors rightfully will take the lead in determining when to re-open their communities, but federal action is required to inform interstate activities that exceed the scope of state and local authorities. One area where this is particularly important is at our nation’s airports. Why? Because our domestic aviation industry is both a meaningful economic metric of consumer confidence and a symbolic political metric of the public’s faith in the ability of our country’s leaders to keep us safe.  

During the White House’s initial “15 Days to Slow the Spread” campaign, the number of air travelers passing through TSA checkpoints plummeted compared to the same time period a year ago, from 40 million passengers in late March 2019 to 8.5 million passengers in late March 2020. Regardless of what the White House says, our nation will not truly be reopened, economically or politically, until those numbers go back up. To facilitate this, safety in airports and in the skies must be top priority.  

So far, the federal government has imposed targeted travel restrictions for foreign nationals and foreign countries. But there is also room for improvement when it comes to domestic travel. We need new health-related screening procedures at our airports to adequately protect the safety and security of the flying public, and rebuild the confidence needed to effectively resume a semblance of normal air travel. The good news is that there are actions we can take at our airports and onboard flights that can better deal with the risk of COVID-19 transmission, now and in the future. Like the 3-1-1 rule, these precautions will create “a new normal.”  

First, if it is not already happening, TSA should work with airlines and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to cross-reference all flight manifests with positive and pending COVID-19 cases. Air travelers who have tested positive within the 14 days preceding their flight, or who are awaiting test results, should not be permitted to fly commercially until the 14-day period expires or their test result comes back negative. There are serious repercussions to not adequately safeguarding domestic air travel. The CDC recently acknowledged this when they issued new guidelines that prohibit disembarking cruise ship passengers from returning home on commercial or public transportation.  

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Similar guidelines should apply to domestic travelers who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results because of known exposure to the virus. The goal is not to require testing of every passenger in advance of every flight. That is intrusive and unrealistic. Instead, the restrictions should be targeted toward known or suspected cases, so that airports and airlines do not serve as a reservoir for new infections.  

Second, airlines need to update check-in procedures for domestic flights by requiring all passengers to confirm that they are not knowingly traveling with COVID-19, or traveling while awaiting test results. Admittedly, this measure depends on voluntary cooperation. However, it does represent an additional enhancement to CDC’s master list of positive and pending cases. We already ask passengers to acknowledge they are not transporting hazardous materials such as weapons, lithium batteries, corrosives and other dangerous items. The consequences for violating that rule are serious — potentially up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 or more.  

We cannot and should not allow passengers to check in for a commercial flight without taking the same level of personal responsibility when it comes to COVID-19. The Surgeon General and the secretary of Homeland Security can consider leveraging existing authorities, without infringing on constitutional protections, to impose appropriate requirements tailored to COVID-19, with penalties if necessary, recognizing that advance testing should not, in and of itself, be a prerequisite to flying. 

Third, require face masks for all passengers. At this point, this should be self-evident. Not only does it reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus but it is a cost-effective and easy-to-enforce way for airlines to protect pilots and flight attendants and airline passengers, who are routinely exposed to a transient population.  

Finally, expand mandatory temperature checks, or introduce voluntary temperature checks, more broadly than the 13 airports where they are being performed, and change these locations as needed based on international and domestic COVID-19 trends. The virus will migrate and caseload will evolve over time. The airports currently performing temperature checks are screening international passengers. That is a good start, but that should represent phase one of an evolving plan to expand temperature checks for passengers traveling to or from domestic hot spots as well, based on CDC guidance, at least until a therapeutic or vaccine can be made widely available in the coming months.  

These measures will not completely resolve the issues aviation faces as we reopen the country.  They do, however, recognize that the federal government has a role to play in determining the success of our reopening efforts. Will Americans feel that it is safe to fly again without new health screening protocols, particularly if COVID-19 becomes cyclical as some health experts are forecasting? 

To reopen America, the federal government should focus on what it can control. Targeted health screening procedures at our nation’s airports, informed by the evolving nature of this virus, will build needed trust and confidence. Many sacrifices already have been made to control the epidemic. Let’s make smart choices now, so reopening the skies to the flying public will not result in larger sacrifices later.

Meryl Justin Chertoff is executive director of the Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law. She directed New Jersey’s Washington, D.C. office on 9/11.