A tale of two responses to pandemic travel

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MIXED SIGNALS: Is it possible to simultaneously take a hands-on and hands-off approach? If so, the Trump administration seems to be doing just that by taking steps to reduce the spread of the coronavirus on international flights while still declining to require masks on commercial and public transportation.


The latest: Officials from DHS, DOT and other U.S. agencies are having preliminary discussions with foreign counterparts — primarily the U.K. and Germany — to develop travel corridors between the U.S. and specific international cities, The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, with the hope of re-opening travel between New York and London by the winter holiday. Under the plan, passengers would have to be tested for the coronavirus before and after their flight in lieu of lengthy quarantines.

So far: A DHS official said talks over resuming transatlantic flights are still in the “early stages.” A source familiar with the matter told us the conversations have focused on developing policy and guidance as well as the possibility of requiring two pre-departure tests — one a few days in advance and another at the airport — as well as a post-arrival test that might occur after a short quarantine.

Supporters include: Airlines for America is among aviation industry groups that have pushed for a federal Covid-19 testing pilot to replace quarantine requirements for some international flights as a way to help revive air travel. Kevin Burke, CEO of Airports Council International-North America, also said he supported the new federal effort. “As we look to the future of travel, our industry supports leveraging advances in testing capabilities to enable travel corridors or ‘air bridges’ to reconnect communities both domestically and internationally,” he said in a statement.

ON THE OTHER HAND: The White House reportedly blocked a CDC order to require that passengers and employees wear masks on public and commercial transportation and in transit hubs like airports, train stations and bus depots. Health officials told The New York Times that the order was drafted under the agency’s “quarantine powers” and had the support of HHS Secretary Alex Azar, but “the White House Coronavirus Task Force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, declined to even discuss it.”

Reminder: As we reported last week, DOT again rejected a request to require masks on commercial transportation, prompting Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to pledge to do so, if elected.

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“I run for the bus, dear / While riding I think of us, dear.”

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NEW DAY, SAME STORY: Leaders in both chambers have done little to inspire optimism that they’ll deliver a coronavirus relief package before the November elections. Despite multiple calls with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a letter to her Democratic colleagues on Saturday that the $1.8 trillion proposal the administration presented last week “amounted to one step forward, two steps back.” In a separate letter on Sunday, she said the two sides would “remain at an impasse” until the White House proposed a strategic plan to “crush the virus.”

Also dubious: Even if the White House and House Democrats manage to put something together in the coming days, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was skeptical it would clear the Senate before the elections. “Even if an agreement is reached … the first item of priority in the Senate is the Supreme Court,” McConnell said at an event in Kentucky on Friday. A slew of Senate Republicans also slammed a potential framework for a deal during a conference call with Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

Obviously: This isn’t great news for transportation industries that are counting on federal aid to help them reverse furloughs and prevent more cuts. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told members during a Facebook Live chat on Friday that “every actor here is using us as a pawn in this process.” She urged them to keep the pressure on but said they should be prepared for talks to drag on through “next week and the week after that.”

Another plea: The American Bus Association on Friday again urged Congress to include the private motorcoach, school bus and domestic passenger vessel industries — which have laid off or furloughed an estimated 308,000 employees in the past eight months — in the next stimulus package. Without relief, “not only does the motorcoach industry face collapse, but the industry’s supply chain will also be crippled, asset values and bank positions destroyed, and tens of thousands of other jobs that rely on the motorcoach industry lost,” the group said.

THE NOT SO DISTANT FUTURE: The FAA is expected to publish a notice in Wednesday’s Federal Register announcing Oct. 15 as the deadline for airlines to submit summer 2021 schedules for five capacity-constrained airports. They are: Chicago O’Hare International Airport, JFK International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport, and San Francisco International Airport. Airlines should continue to prepare schedules for those facilities “even if the effects of COVID-19 on airport demand and operations continue and adjustments become necessary to respond to changing conditions,” the agency wrote.

ICYMI: TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein tweeted that the agency screened 984,354 on Sunday during the holiday weekend — the highest volume since the start of the pandemic in the U.S.

THE NEW NORMAL: House Homeland Security Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) subpoenaed documents related to DHS’ now-reversed decision to ban New Yorkers from Trusted Traveler programs and the “inaccurate or misleading information that the Administration provided to the Committee and Federal court” to support it, he said in a statement on Friday. Thompson also recently issued a subpoena in a failed attempt to compel acting Secretary Chad Wolf to testify at a September hearing on “worldwide threats to the homeland.”

Reminder: Last month, the panel held a hearing on DHS’ management of Trusted Traveler programs as part of a larger investigation after the department acknowledged that it provided inaccurate information to support a policy that prevented New York residents from enrolling in the programs. Deputy CBP Commissioner Robert Perez said at the hearing that his agency would provide documents requested by the committee but declined to provide a specific timeline.

AVIATION CYBERSECURITY: The FAA should provide more cybersecurity oversight for commercial airplanes, according to a new GAO report released Friday. The government watchdog said that although there have been no reports of a successful hack into a commercial airplane IT system, increasing connectivity between planes and other systems means the agency needs to focus on cyber threats. Among other things, the FAA needs to identify cybersecurity-specific staffing and training needs for agency inspectors and develop guidance for testing of new airplane designs, GAO said.

Agency response: The FAA concurred with five of the six recommendations. The agency disagreed that it should consider revising its policies and procedures for periodic independent testing, saying that testing could potentially corrupt an airplane’s systems and there are already processes in place to identify and correct cybersecurity safety issues. GAO said it understood those concerns and clarified that it recommends the FAA “consider developing policies and procedures to safely conduct such testing as part of its ongoing monitoring of airplane safety.”

MORE ON CYBER: At least 40 percent of transit agencies don’t have a cybersecurity preparedness plan in place and less than half audit their cybersecurity programs annually, according to a recent report from the Mineta Transportation Institute. MTI surveyed officials at 90 transit agencies and found that most reported feeling prepared for a cybersecurity threat, although many had not adequately prepared for such a threat. Cyber crisis communications plans, cyber disaster recovery plans and consistent maintenance of log data were among the elements found to be lacking, per MTI findings.

What’s next: The research team behind the report recommended the FTA require agencies that receive federal funding to adopt minimum cybersecurity standards. The team also recommended more federal funding for cybersecurity preparedness plans.

— “Southwest pilots’ union pushes back on 10% pay cut proposal.” CNBC.

— “The presidential election is also tanking the travel industry.” Bloomberg.

— “Electric cars to triple market share in Europe amid COVID-19, researchers say.” Reuters.

— “Trump personnel office weighs asking appointees to offer their resignations.” POLITICO.

— The Heist podcast episode, “Better Off?” featuring an investigation of how American Airlines spent money from a 2017 tax overhaul and federal coronavirus relief. Center for Public Integrity.

DOT appropriations run in 59 days. The FAA reauthorization expires in 1,082 days. The surface transportation reauthorization expires in 352 days.

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