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Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport appeared nearly empty Thursday with one traveler calling it ‘surreal.’ The U.S. is offering airlines a $25 billion aid package,  but analysts say it could be five years before the industry fully recovers. (April 16)

AP Domestic

With passengers fearful of contracting the coronavirus if they fly, aviation industry leaders called on Congress Wednesday to require new, consistent standards to ensure safety.

Only when passengers know what to expect in terms of screening, cleaning procedures, social distancing and other factors will they be reassured that air travel is safe again, industry experts told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

“The aviation industry needs clear and consistent federal guidelines and standards to protect passengers and workers now, and as travel returns to the system,” said Todd Hauptli, CEO of the American Association of Airport Executives.

To jump-start airline travel again, the public needs to better informed about safety measures already in effect, said Eric Fanning, CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association. 

“We are confident that the air exchange and filtration systems used in our airplanes can help mitigate the risk of the spread of the virus,” as well as enhanced cleaning, Fanning said. “We are working to share this safety information with our customers and the public.”

More: Travelers spent $8.6 billion on baggage, change fees last year. Airlines won’t get that payday in 2020

He said “ultimately, how people feel about flying” will be critical lure them back on to planes.

But questions about consistency among airlines were raised. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said she was concerned that Frontier Airlines has started charging $39 to guarantee a passenger can make sure the middle seat next to them would not be occupied.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for some passengers who can’t afford to pay an additional charge for a seat to be less safe than other travelers,” the Minnesota Democrat said.

More: Many US airlines announce passengers to wear face masks in order to travel

Nicholas Calio, CEO of Airlines for America, the airline industry’s most prominent lobbying group, said his member air carriers aren’t charging extra for empty middle seats and are doing their best to space out those on board. It isn’t hard at the moment: He said the average domestic flight recently have had 17 passengers aboard. International flights averaged 29.

In conjunction with the hearing, a major aviation union, the Air Line Pilots Association, issued a report detailing what it believes are lapses endangering aircrews. It asks that Congress direct the Federal Aviation Administration to require precautions like providing pilots with protective gear in the cockpit, mandating use of face masks for all passengers and crew members and giving pilots access to priority COVID-19 testing.

More: Phoenix airport sees almost 50% drop in number of travelers due to coronavirus

“The first step to ensuring an economic turnaround is to have uniform, mandatory public health guidelines,” said ALPA President Joe DePete in a statement.

Also to help those on board planes, Hilary Godwin, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, told the committee that all aircraft should be required to have high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters. She also said airlines should do a better job of recording passengers’ email addresses and phone numbers so they can be reached in case it’s determined they were exposed to COVID-19 while traveling.

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