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Air Travel and Communicable Diseases: Federal Leadership Needed to Advance Research

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What GAO found

GAO identified research on communicable diseases in aviation in several areas. For example, research has studied how air moves on airplanes and the effects of different flight operations – such as boarding a plane from the back to the front – on the risk of disease exposure. However, stakeholders surveyed by GAO described the need for more research that incorporates real-world situations and human behavior. Additional research could support the development of evidence-based mitigation measures, policies and regulations to protect public health. Stakeholders identified several challenges, most notably the lack of federal leadership to facilitate interdisciplinary research and fill gaps to conduct research on communicable diseases in aviation. Stakeholders said the researchers’ inability to access planes, airports or data also pose challenges to conducting the research needed.

Examples of conditions or behaviors that may affect transmission of disease on an aircraft

Several agencies have focused on the research areas most relevant to their priorities and missions. These agencies include the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). None of these agencies have made any effort to advance the necessary research on communicable diseases in aviation on a more widespread basis. Officials from each of those agencies said a more coordinated federal approach to identifying and funding relevant research could provide valuable information and influence policy and guidance development. Additionally, bringing in the assets of various federal agencies could connect researchers with aviation stakeholders across disciplines, provide clearer access to federal research funding, and help identify needed research across disciplines.

While the FAA recognizes that it has broad powers to conduct and sponsor research into aviation communicable diseases, the agency has in the past claimed that this work falls outside of its core responsibility for aviation safety. However, the FAA has prior experience in conducting and supporting such research, as well as strong ties to the airline industry that are critical in advancing the research needed. In particular, the FAA has a history of conducting related research — usually in response to government mandates — including work on disease transmission in airplane cabins. Additionally, leading the development of a coordinated strategy would be consistent with the FAA’s efforts to develop a national aviation preparedness plan, in coordination with DHS and HHS, as recommended by GAO. Such a strategy would help focus research efforts to better inform the development of policies and requirements to protect passenger and crew health.

Why GAO did this study

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened ongoing concerns about air travel’s role in the spread of disease and raised questions about passenger and crew safety. Research that could provide quality information on communicable diseases associated with air travel can help protect public health.

The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to monitor and report on federal efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO was also asked to review research on airborne disease transmission. This report examines: (1) the state of research on aviation communicable diseases, including stakeholders’ views on additional research needs and implementation challenges, and (2) the extent to which the FAA and other federal agencies are advancing this research.

To conduct this work, GAO interviewed stakeholders, including federal officials, researchers, and representatives from the airline industry and unions. GAO also reviewed agency scientific literature and documents, including research plans and important agency collaboration considerations.





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