OP-ED: To get air travel off the ground, we need federal action

This Opinion was originally published in The Hill on July 27, 2020. 

JULY 27, 2020 — Thanks in part to airline pilots, flight attendants and other aviation workers, the U.S. airline industry has begun a fragile return to the skies — but the effort will be lost without commitment from the Trump administration and Congress to continue to protect aviation jobs, mandate a healthy flying environment and help us inspire more passengers to fly. 

There’s no question the stakes are high for the U.S. airline industry, its workers and its enormous contribution to the nation’s economy, as well as the comeback of American businesses, large and small. Demand for air travel fell by over 90 percent when the pandemic first hit in March, and only about 20 percent of travelers have returned. The European Union’s recent decision to prohibit air travel from the United States is the latest blow to our industry and our nation’s credibility around the world. That credibility gives us the freedom to fly and participate in the world economy; this matters to every American.

The first step is to put rules in place to help the aviation industry do more to fight the virus. Absent a consistent industrywide mandate, carriers have adopted a patchwork of voluntary measures. We know that crew and passenger use of masks, along with proper hand hygiene and procedures that reduce contact, can help limit the risks of coronavirus spread through air travel. But without federal safety regulations — like the regulations we used to prohibit smoking on flights — these policies are nearly impossible to enforce. This crisis is far too big to expect private corporations to make sound public health decisions. That’s why public health policy must be directed with help from the federal government. 

The lack of uniform rules on masks, seat spacing, cleaning, air circulation and airport practices must be addressed. In the absence of federal regulations, our allies abroad won’t lift travel restrictions, and we won’t gain passengers’ confidence in our ability to keep them safe.

Federal leadership isn’t just necessary to protect the airline industry (although it is); it’s critical to restoring aviation as a driver for the country’s economic recovery. Prior to the pandemic, we supported 44,000 flights and 2.7 million passengers per day, generating hundreds of billions of dollars in economic activity and supporting millions of jobs in industries like manufacturing, hospitality, tourism, engineering and national defense. The point is simple: Government action on aviation safety will speed economic recovery for everyone. 

Ten million Americans count on a strong U.S. aviation industry for their jobs. If we are to build an economic rebound for this country, we must protect the jobs of the frontline aviation workers who will help lift up the rest of the economy. In March, Congress created a program to keep airline workers’ paychecks and health care in place, while maintaining vital air service to communities across the country. Every dollar has gone to the paychecks and benefits of workers, nothing else — the most transparent program of COVID-19 relief. The program passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, and the public’s money was used exactly as intended — generating job-saving results for working Americans and stabilizing our industry so that we can prepare for a strong restart. But, as the pandemic persists and even intensifies in some regions, additional investment is needed in workers and an industry that form the foundation of our economy. We need to extend this historic workers-first program now, or hundreds of thousands of workers could lose their jobs.

Airline pilots and flight attendants have been on the frontlines of fighting this epidemic from the very beginning. We have delivered medical supplies, maintained supply chains for masks and other personal protective equipment and kept air travel routes open to communities across the country. American aviation and our airline workforce can continue to help lead a strong recovery for the entire country — but we need Congress and the administration to do their part. 

Captain Joe DePete is the president of the Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l. (ALPA).
Sara Nelson is the president of the Association of Flight Attendants – CWA (AFA).

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