‘Clear, uniform, national’ coronavirus guidelines needed for U.S. air travel, Sen. Cantwell says

By:  Katherine Khashimova Long
Source: The Seattle Times

Passengers say airlines’ new social distancing measures are unevenly applied. Not all airports have taken steps recommended by public health officials to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

And above all, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell wrote Monday in a letter to federal transportation officials, the aviation industry has taken far too long to beef up its response to COVID-19.

What’s missing, said the letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, are “clear, uniform, national COVID-19 guidelines for the aviation sector” from the executive branch.

Nearly two weeks have passed since public health experts testified May 6 before a Senate committee about the need for “a net of public health options” to minimize contact between passengers at airports and on planes, Cantwell noted. Days later, Cantwell asked the White House Coronavirus Task Force to establish federal social distancing guidelines for the aviation sector.

Yet in that time — and in the more than four months since one of the first known cases of coronavirus in the United States, a Snohomish County man, returned from Wuhan, China, via Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Jan. 15 — the White House has not provided guidance to airports and airlines that would “keep the traveling public and workers safe during the coronavirus crisis,” Cantwell wrote.

“A consistent approach by airlines, guided by federal agencies, will be more effective in thwarting the spread of COVID-19 than if no guidelines are in place,” she wrote.

Cantwell asked the Department of Transportation to encourage airlines to keep every other seat open or limit the number of people allowed to board planes, and ensure passengers are able to maintain 6 feet of separation in airport queues and while waiting to board the aircraft.

Absent overarching guidelines, airlines and airports have implemented “inconsistent measures,” Cantwell wrote, to lessen the chance passengers and workers contract coronavirus.

Some airports, including in Hawaii, began screening passengers for fever back in April; Sea-Tac plans to begin doing so in coming weeks. The Transportation Security Administration revealed last week it would also begin checking travelers’ temperatures, The Wall Street Journal reported, but did not say at which airports. Sea-Tac has asked to be part of the program, airport spokeswoman Kate Hudson said, but has not heard back from the agency.

While most large airports now require travelers to cover their faces, policies are spottier at regional airports — travelers through Spokane International Airport, for instance, don’t need to wear masks. Sea-Tac’s mandatory mask policy takes effect Monday, and applies to passengers and staff, but not workers such as baggage handlers employed by airlines.

Airline rules aren’t uniform, either. Crew members and passengers on all airlines operating at Sea-Tac are required to wear masks, but some travelers have said on their flights, the rule wasn’t enforced. And even airlines that initially announced they would keep middle seats open to provide for a modicum of social distance onboard have pointed to fine-print caveats as photos and videos of packed flights surfaced on social media in recent days.

United Airlines pledged to automatically block middle seats, but then said it can’t guarantee passengers will be seated next to an unoccupied seat. Alaska Airlines also said it would block off many seats — with the caution “extra space between guests is not guaranteed and is subject to weight and balance restrictions” through the end of June.

Airlines say crowded flights are the exception. In early May, domestic flights typically had about 23 passengers, compared with 85 to 100 passengers per flight before the pandemic, according to industry group Airlines for America. But some travelers still say they’re less than satisfied with social distancing measures while flying.

Kelly Armentrout and her family had been in quarantine for 14 days before dropping her son, Theo, off at Sea-Tac on Sunday, when he boarded a flight to Alaska to work in the Copper River salmon fishery. Once Theo arrives in the tiny fishing community of Cordova, he will enter another two-week quarantine period. The quarantines are part of the fishing industry’s attempt to keep coronavirus off its ships and out of processing plants in remote Alaskan towns.

Armentrout and her husband wore masks to the airport; Theo wore two. But when they stepped into the baggage drop-off line at the Alaska Airlines counter, Armentrout said they were crowded by unmasked passengers standing a few feet away from them, despite stickers on the floor asking passengers to socially distance and a large sign at the entrance to the airport asking travelers to wear masks.

Armentrout said she felt disappointed, and worried for her son. “We’re doing everything we can to stay safe and we come to the airport and this is going on?” she said.

What’s needed are “national regulations or guidance for US airports and flights that originate from or terminate in the United States,” Dr. Hilary Godwin, dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health, testified before the Senate’s commerce and transportation committee May 6. “The probability that healthy individuals will interact with one or more individuals who are infected but may not know increases exponentially as the number of people passing through the airport increases.”

In recent days, Sea-Tac has seen an uptick in passengers as some states ease social-distancing guidelines. For the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic, more than 5,000 travelers passed through the airport last Monday.