Cantwell: Aviation Industry Must Heed Science, Protect Workers in COVID-19 Response

Cantwell calls for uniform national policies for commercial aviation to keep the traveling public, aviation workers safe; Cantwell: Mandatory or forced hours reductions counter to intent of CARES Act; senators will send letter to Treasury to clarify

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing to examine the aviation industry in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Ranking Member of the committee, called for uniform national policies to be implemented to protect airline passengers and workers. She also criticized plans announced by airlines that received emergency COVID-19 funds to implement mandatory hours reductions for thousands of workers around the country as contrary to the intent of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in March.

“Right now, I believe, we need multiple federal agencies, like CDC, NIH, DHS, and DOT to better coordinate information to the traveling public about the phases of reopening. We have the states and public health authorities across the country looking for leadership, to tell our aviation-traveling public what are the most necessary procedures, and how to follow them,” Senator Cantwell said in her opening statement. “I do not want to see a Balkanization of safety issues, where everybody has somewhat of an opinion. Or, I should say, even of the industry, I want to see a uniform standard that this is what safety in aviation requires—on the manufacturing side, in our airports, and on our airplanes.”

Later in the hearing, Cantwell asked Dr. Hilary Godwin, the Dean of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, about the importance of following and establishing public health guidelines for the aviation industry. Dr. Godwin responded:

“We expect people to reenter into travel gradually. And that gives us a period of time to implement these measures in a way that is very protective of travelers and airport personnel and workers,” Godwin said. “I think the most important thing to convey in terms of how we manage this interim time is the question of density, though.”

Cantwell agreed: “That’s our best bet: implement the health care policies, and then we can move forward.”

Senator Cantwell also asked Nick Calio, the head of Airlines for America, about implementing such a standard: “Let’s not say to the flying public, ‘We’re going to charge you to keep the middle seat open.’ Let’s just get the airlines to do the right distancing if that’s what it takes. So, what about getting a national guideline policy implemented?”

In the hearing, Cantwell also criticized moves by a number of airlines who received emergency funding from the CARES Act to reduce hours for thousands of their workers.

“We are very concerned that when hours are being reduced of aviation airline workers, this is counter to what the legislation entailed,” Cantwell said. “I will be sending a letter, along with Senators Brown and Schumer, to the Treasury Secretary to clarify that mandatory or forced reductions in payroll hours is not what the CARES Act intended.”

In her final round of questions for the witnesses at the hearing, Cantwell asked Eric Fanning, the President and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, about the importance of supporting the aerospace supply chain, as well as providing health care to aviation workers who have been laid off as a result of the pandemic.

Senator Can­twell has been focused on ensuring that airlines and airport are equipped to respond to the effects of COVID-19 on commercial aviation and to keep the traveling public safe. In March, she pressed airlines and airports for their plans of action in response to the pandemic, and questioned Trump Administration officials on how the virus would impact air travel, pushing for better coordination across government agencies and with the private sector.

Today’s hearing followed social distancing guidelines, with only a few members of the committee in attendance, the members and the witnesses sitting the appropriate six feet apart, one witness and multiple members calling in remotely, and a limited number of audience members and staff.

Video of Senator Cantwell’s opening statement at the hearing can be found HERE and audio is HERE.

Video of Senator Cantwell’s Q&A with the witnesses can be found HERE and HERE, and audio can be found HERE and HERE.

A transcript of Senator Cantwell’s remarks and questions at the hearing is available HERE.