Robert Silk
Robert Silk

For months, it has been clear that the U.S. aviation industry needs strong federal leadership, both to help ensure the health and safety of flyers and crew and to reassure a scared public that flying can still be safe.

Instead, on July 2, the departments of Transportation, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services gave the industry and the American public a document that is so tepid, one wonders why it was produced at all. 

The so-called Runway to Recovery is being billed by the Trump administration as a "framework for airlines and airports to mitigate the public health risk of coronavirus."

Sadly, though, it is replete with recommendations that for the most part have already been implemented by airlines, airports and even federal agencies such as the TSA and Customs and Border Protection.

Furthermore, at a time when painful evidence shows this country desperately needs rules, not suggestions, the document offers no indication that the administration has any plan to implement a federal in-flight or airport mask mandate, as flight attendants, pilot unions and airports have asked for.

And on seat blocking, the health safety measure that most separates U.S. airline industry players that are otherwise largely in agreement over necessary procedures, the document offers no clarity, stating only that "airlines should consider the feasibility of limiting seat availability to enable passengers to maintain social distance from each other during the flight."

This rudderless attempt at federal leadership came as new daily reported U.S. cases of Covid-19 had surged to their highest level yet, halting for now the modest but steady recovery airlines made in May and June. With fear about the pandemic rightfully mounting anew, the past few weeks have seen a downturn in bookings. During the week that ended July 5, agency channel bookings were down 79.3% year over year compared with 75.2% three weeks earlier, according to ARC. 

United reported a similar trend in a July 7 regulatory filing, noting that domestic quarantine rules recently put in place in the Northeast are exacerbating the problem. In Newark, United's domestic bookings for the seven days that ended July 1 were down 84% year over year compared with a 73% decline networkwide.

In recent weeks, aware that restoring traveler confidence is a must for their balance sheets, U.S. airlines have come to their own agreements on certain standards. Most notably, all 10 mainline U.S. carriers are mandating the wearing of masks. Major carriers have also come together to require health declarations upon check-in. Carriers long ago enhanced cleaning protocols due to the virus, and airports have done the same.

Airports, however, haven't reached unanimous accord on masks. As of June 30, 20 of the 30 largest airports in the country were requiring masks, according to Todd Hauptli, CEO of the American Association of Airport Executives. The Airports Council International-North America has urged the DOT to establish a mask requirement, though airlines, ever weary of regulation, don't want one.

The carriers are getting their way. The Runway to Recovery says only that airports and airlines are "strongly encouraged" to require masks, though a binding federal mandate would have much more force. 

Meanwhile, the document includes a slew of other unhelpful recommendations. To name just a couple of examples, it recommends that airlines limit or suspend onboard customer service and that airports take measures to distance travelers, such as marking floors. Those measures, like most others in the document, were implemented months ago. 

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