March 02, 2021

Chairs DeFazio, Larsen Statements from Hearing on COVID-19’s Effects on the U.S. Aviation Sector

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Rick Larsen (D-WA) during today’s hearing titled, “COVID-19’s Effects on U.S. Aviation and the Flight Path to Recovery.” Videos of DeFazio and Larsen’s opening statements are here and here. More information on the hearing can be found here.

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Chair Larsen, for calling today’s hearing on the aviation industry’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and I welcome all of our witnesses.

Last month this country passed the dreadful marker of half a million deaths from COVID-19. But now that we are starting to see the faint glow of a light at the end of the tunnel, it is appropriate to, even at this early stage of the Nation’s emergence from the pandemic, start thinking about the aviation industry’s recovery.

As our witnesses know all too well, the aviation industry has suffered financial crises about once every 10 years since deregulation. In 1990 and 1991 we saw the failures of Pan Am and Eastern Air Lines, with numerous others filing for bankruptcy, amid a recession and the first Gulf War. Ten years later, the 9/11 terror attacks sparked a financial crisis that resulted in the loss of roughly 128,000 aviation jobs and the bankruptcies of United, Delta, Northwest, and US Airways, as well as the failures of several smaller airlines like Aloha. Shortly less than a decade later came the global financial crisis, when roughly 25,000 airline workers lost their jobs.

And now, unfortunately, here we are again.

This time, however, Congress rose to the occasion by creating the Payroll Support Program: a pass-through program to pay airline workers’ salaries, wages, and benefits, keeping them off unemployment lines during the first six months of the pandemic without a penny going into the pockets of company executives or shareholders. We extended this highly successful program in December through this month, and a further extension through the end of September is included in the “American Rescue Plan Act of 2021,” which the House passed and sent to the Senate early Saturday morning.

Moreover, passenger traffic is recovering slowly but surely. While U.S. airlines reported a drop to only 3 million passenger boardings at the outset of the pandemic in April 2020, by November the number of boardings had rebounded to 29 million, although that’s still less than half of the 73 million boardings recorded during the same time in the previous year. I’m hopeful that by September 30th when the pending Payroll Support Program expires, the airlines will find that sustainability is in sight, for the benefit of those who rely on them, including their workers.

While the Payroll Support Program keeps airline workers on the payroll, those workers must occasionally deal with unruly passengers who refuse to wear masks.

That’s why last year, I along with Chair Larsen, introduced the “Healthy Flights Act of 2020,” which, among numerous health and safety measures, explicitly gave the FAA Administrator the authority to require passengers to wear masks and also imposed a standalone mask requirement on board airplanes and in airports. Based in part on what we learn from today’s hearing, I plan to reintroduce that legislation in the near term.

Meanwhile, I want to commend the Biden administration for issuing Executive Orders requiring mask use in transportation, including air transportation. While I believe an express statutory mandate is appropriate, this was a necessary step to protect aviation workers and passengers.

I, along with Homeland Security Chair Thompson, sent a letter last month calling on the Transportation Security Administration to strictly enforce the President’s new order by denying entry at screening checkpoints of any travelers refusing to wear masks and calling on the FAA to work with U.S. airlines to ensure there’s appropriate and proactive messaging about face masks well in advance of a flight, including at ticket purchase and during mobile check-in. I hope to hear from today’s witnesses about how the Federal mandate has helped the airlines, airports, and aviation workers across the system.

Separately, the FAA must continue to take strong enforcement action against passengers who become unruly when told they must wear masks while on board aircraft. Just last week, the FAA announced a $27,500 fine against a Delta passenger who struck a flight attendant in the face after the passenger’s companion refused to follow crewmember instructions and wear a mask. The FAA must continue to enforce a zero-tolerance policy and use the regulations in its toolbox, such as the prohibition on interference with the duties of crewmembers, to go after people who recklessly endanger the lives of their fellow passengers.

Finally, as vaccines become more prevalent and the country returns to a healthy state, we must ensure that the aviation industry has a plan in place to transition safely from current mitigation techniques to future ones. If the industry is too eager and moves too fast to remove certain precautions, the health and safety of workers and passengers could be negatively affected.

Meanwhile, if issuance of new guidelines is too slow, we run the risk of perpetuating uncertainty and becoming the victim of a patchwork quilt of standard procedures. With mass vaccinations already underway, the Federal Government must utilize science and develop a strategy ahead of time, to ensure that regulations are uniform and our transition back to “normal” is a safe one.

The aviation industry that emerges from this pandemic will not be the same industry that was flourishing on January 1, 2020. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses as to what that industry will look like, and how Congress can support the needs of workers and users of our air transportation system to ensure that more than 1 million aviation workers remain employed and that the risk of catching the coronavirus on an airplane is de minimis.

Again, thank you, Chair Larsen, for calling today’s hearing.

Chair Larsen:

Good morning and thank you to today’s witnesses for joining the Subcommittee’s first hearing of the 117th Congress on “COVID-19’s Effects on U.S. Aviation and the Flight Path to Recovery.”

Before we begin, I would like to thank my colleagues re-electing me to serve as Subcommittee Chair.

I look forward to working with Ranking Member Garret Graves to address the pressing challenges and new opportunities facing U.S. aviation.

The pandemic has tested the resiliency of the U.S. transportation network like never before, and the aviation sector is no exception.

In my conversations with constituents and stakeholders, I hear about tragic loss, economic anxiety and profound challenges.

I have heard from airports like Bellingham International in my district, which experienced a 71 percent decline in enplanements last year when compared to 2019, and is expecting a cumulative loss of nearly $11 million in revenue.

I have heard from local aerospace manufacturing suppliers like Hexcel Corporation in Burlington, struggling to keep its doors open and employees on payroll due to halted production and stalled deliveries.

I have heard from a regional airline pilot from Marysville who is concerned about paying off his student loan debt, while caring for his growing family. While these issues in total may seem insurmountable, U.S. aviation, as it has done before, will persevere.

Last week, the House passed the American Rescue Plan, a comprehensive aid package that gets more vaccines in arms, gives Americans a long overdue raise, enables working families to return to their jobs, and ensures communities can continue to maintain crucial services.

The package also provides urgent relief to sustain U.S. aviation and aerospace during the pandemic, and protect workers and restore lost manufacturing jobs, including:

  • A $15 billion extension of the successful Payroll Support Program through September 2021 to keep frontline aviation workers on payroll with benefits;
  • $8 billion to help keep U.S. airports and airport concessionaires operational; and
  • Language from my bipartisan bill, the Aerospace Manufacturing Jobs Protection Act, providing $3 billion to help retain and rehire aerospace supply chain workers.

As the Nation works to safely get to the other side of this pandemic, ensuring safety and restoring confidence in air travel is key to the Nation’s long-term economic recovery.

Keeping the flying public healthy from COVID-19 is even more difficult because of the lack of coordinated Federal leadership by the previous administration.

The Biden administration has since taken actions to reinforce public health, including the requiring of masks on in airports and onboard commercial aircraft. I was also pleased the Federal Aviation Administration is taking a zero-tolerance enforcement policy against unruly passengers who disobey flight and cabin crew instructions during flight.

However, the Federal government can – and must – do more.

A National aviation preparedness plan would ensure the safety of aviation crews and passengers in the event of a future public health crisis.

Following the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended the Department of Transportation work with relevant Federal agencies to develop such a plan for communicable disease crises.

Although these Federal agencies did not dispute GAO’s recommendation, they took no significant action to develop a preparedness plan.

Ms. Krause (GAO), I look forward to hearing about the benefits of a National aviation preparedness plan and GAO’s other recommendations to improve the safety of the traveling public, and minimize disruptions to the National aviation system.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has created fragmented travel requirements, resulting in a confusing system for passengers, U.S. airlines and flight crews to navigate. These challenges range from various acceptable COVID-19 test results to inconsistent quarantine periods.

To address these issues, digital vaccine and testing “passports” are gaining popularity.

Recently, major carriers such as United Airlines and American Airlines launched mobile apps which can enable passengers to show immunization records and recent testing results when traveling abroad.

Mr. Calio (A4A), I am interested in learning more about U.S. carriers’ efforts to develop these passports and what standards are necessary to scale up deployment.

I often say that the public health response will lead economic recovery.

Since last December, the Food and Drug Administration has issued emergency use authorizations for three COVID-19 vaccinations. President Biden recently pledged to make nearly 600 million doses available by the end of July.

As COVID-19 vaccine distribution and administration continues across the country, frontline aviation workers must be appropriately considered for access.

Captain DePete (ALPA), I look forward to hearing more about the essential role of airline pilots in U.S. aviation’s recovery and how improving access to vaccinations is critical to ensuring the safety of flight crews.

As U.S. aviation embarks on a “flight path to recovery,” the Nation needs a bold, FDR-like investment in infrastructure to drive local economies, create jobs and fight climate change.

I am pleased Mr. Lance Lyttle, Managing Director of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in my home state of Washington, is on today’s witness panel on behalf of AAAE.

Mr. Lyttle, I look forward to hearing more about the importance of federal investment in airports’ growing infrastructure needs and efforts to improve environmental sustainability.

U.S. aviation is also undergoing a historic shift with the continued growth of unmanned aircraft and the emergence of new airspace entrants such as Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), including electric aircraft which can help reduce traffic congestion by moving people and cargo at lower altitudes across regions.

While collaboration between the Federal government, aerospace industry and other key stakeholders is ongoing, the safe integration of new entrants is far from complete.

Mr. Bunce (GAMA), I would like to hear more from you about Congress’ role to establish the comprehensive policy framework and investment necessary to foster innovation in U.S. airspace.

However, full economic recovery is only possible with continued Federal support for the hardworking women and men of the aviation workforce and the next generation of engineers, pilots, mechanics and technicians.

Mr. Bolen (NBAA), I look forward to hearing more about ways to improve access to STEM-based apprenticeships, skills training and career and technical education programs to diversify and grow the U.S. aviation pipeline.

The American people are sacrificing greatly to combat COVID-19. They are counting on Congress to do its part to keep people safe and get the country to the other side of this pandemic.

I am confident that with Congress’s continued support, the U.S. aviation industry and workforce will be able to move toward long-term economic recovery.

Thank you again to today’s witnesses. I look forward to our discussion.