Transportation, Treasury departments need to prep for infectious disease outbreaks, track aid money, report urges

Air travel

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The Department of Transportation (DOT) hasn't created a national aviation preparedness plan for infectious disease outbreaks, despite a 2015 US Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommendation to do so, according to a new report on lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

When tasked with identifying pandemic lessons for the report, the GAO reviewed more than 20 of its previous reports and documents from offices of inspectors general and aviation stakeholders and interviewed officials from the DOT and the Department of the Treasury.

Congress directed DOT to create plan in 2022

"In April 2020, U.S. commercial airline traffic fell to 3 million passengers, a 96 percent decrease from April 2019," the GAO noted in the report. "The federal government responded in many ways, including by providing $132 billion in financial assistance to airlines, aviation and other businesses, and airports."

Yet a DOT plan to avert replication of the disjointed response seen early in the pandemic didn't materialize even after stakeholders told the GAO in 2020 and 2021 that confidence in air travel could have recovered faster if there had been greater federal coordination. In December 2022, at the GAO's behest, Congress passed a law requiring the DOT to develop the plan.

In July 2022, the GAO said that federal leaders needed to advance research on disease spread aboard airplanes, including in real-world scenarios and on the efficacy of mitigation methods. While the GAO urged Congress to require the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to create a research strategy, as of this month, legislators haven't done so.

This year and in 2023, DOT and FAA officials said they are working on developing a preparedness plan and identifying a research agenda. "By implementing GAO's recommendations, DOT and other aviation stakeholders would be better positioned to address a communicable disease threat while minimizing unnecessary aviation disruptions, which were significant in the case of COVID-19," the GAO said in the report.

Four key recommendations

Lessons learned from GAO's work on COVID-19 aviation-assistance programs from the Department of the Treasury's Payroll Support Program (PSP), the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act loan program, and the DOT's Airport Grants and Aviation Manufacturing Jobs Protection Program include:

  • When developed before disseminating funding, financial and other safeguards can help agencies minimize risks. "DOT and Treasury quickly awarded funds but did not always have safeguards in place in a timely manner," the report said. "For instance, Treasury did not quickly implement a monitoring plan for PSP."
  • Programs or program paths should be tailored to different types and sizes of businesses. "Businesses eligible for the PSP and loan programs ranged from large airlines to ticket agents with a handful of employees," the GAO said. "Large airlines viewed the programs favorably, but small businesses reported challenges accessing funds."

DOT and Treasury quickly awarded funds but did not always have safeguards in place in a timely manner.

  • New or expanded funding programs should be clearly communicated to eligible businesses. "Some program applicants reported confusion—e.g., small businesses new to applying for federal funding—regarding issues such as eligibility requirements and expected funding time frames," the report said.
  • Airlines struggled to find enough workers to manage air traffic when travel resumed, despite the funding programs' workforce-retention requirements. While the aviation industry credited the funding programs (particularly the PSP) for providing support, "factors such as early retirements and pauses on employee training also affected airline workforce levels," the GAO wrote.

The GAO will continue to monitor the federal COVID-19 pandemic response, including the DOT's and Treasury's production of aviation lessons learned, it said.

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