Editorial: Federal guidelines on air travel are needed

By:  Union-Bulletin Editorial Board
Source: Walla Walla Union Bulletin

Currently, few of us are pondering the idea of flying anywhere. But when the nation has a handle on the COVID-19 pandemic, air travel will once again be on our minds.

When that happens, what will the rules be for safe air travel?

At this point, it’s essentially up to each airline or perhaps airport. It’s just not clear.

And that’s why U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is urging federal Department of Transportation officials to issue “clear, uniform, national COVID-19 guidelines for the aviation sector.”

It’s more than a reasonable request, it’s critically important.

Clear guidelines or rules need to be in place to protect airline passengers and crews, but also to assure the public that steps are being taken to quell the spread of COVID-19 on air flights.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, rules were put in place at all airports regarding the screening of passengers and what would and wouldn’t be allowed in airports and on airplanes.

These rules were not put in place simply to make it more difficult to hijack airplanes, as the Sept. 11 terrorists did on that tragic day, but also to assure Americans that it was safe to fly.

The Seattle Times reported that Cantwell wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao voicing concerns about the lack of a clear message.

In addition, Cantwell asked the White House Coronavirus Task Force to establish federal social distancing guidelines for the aviation sector.

“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.

The key word in that last paragraph is “consistent.”

Some airlines have said they will block out seats to provide more room between passengers. Alaska Airlines, which serves Walla Walla, said it would block out 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, according to the Times reporting.

Given the restrictions on weight and balance are mandated by basic physics, Alaska is doing the best it can to create a safer environment. It would seem things such as balance restrictions, which cannot be changed, could be considered in federal guidelines.

Writing and enforcing guidelines or rules seem to be a federal responsibility since air travel usually involves crossing state lines.

The White House and Department of Transportation need to make establishing guidelines a priority.