As Air Travel Rises, Concerns About COVID-19 Security Measures Also Rise | Cronkite news


After a year of a disastrous pandemic, the number of air travelers has started to pick up at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, as is the case at airports across the country. But health experts warn COVID-19 safeguards must be observed to ensure infections do not increase with the number of travelers. (File photo by Allie Barton / Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – With vaccination efforts in full swing, airlines and airports are set to rebound after a year in which passenger traffic fell 96% due to the pandemic, officials told Wednesday at a Senate panel.

And that improvement was also seen at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, where “we were very, very excited to see the numbers increase to about 70%” of pre-pandemic levels, said Charlene Reynolds, deputy director of the aviation of the Phoenix Department of Aviation. .

“Here at Sky Harbor, we are currently seeing a resumption in traffic,” Reynolds said in testimony before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee. “We’ve looked at some of the rating agencies’ projections, they think we’ll get back to normal in 2024, but we’re optimistic that passengers will come back earlier than 2024.”

Although they spoke of gains, however, much of the audience was devoted to the issue of health issues associated with increased travel and the need to continue to enforce COVID-19 safeguards.

“I look forward to hearing our witnesses on airplane safety and what the future holds for air travel,” said Senator Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Who said the Centers’ recent guidance for Disease Control and Prevention. does not provide the clarity “necessary to maintain public confidence”.

“As our country draws closer to a full reopening, now is the time to take stock of where the aviation industry stands and what can be done to ensure it makes a full recovery,” said Mr. Wicker.

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For Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants, the most important action is to keep mitigation efforts in place. It means everything from making sure people get vaccinated to maintaining mask warrants for air travel – and for airlines, it also means extending a current ban on onboard food and drink service.

“Every time someone goes for a drink or a bite to eat, they take that mask off and put others at risk,” said Nelson, who said airlines need to delay restoring in-flight catering.

She also implored lawmakers to extend a Transportation Security Administration mask term, which currently expires on May 11.

Leonard Marcus, co-director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative, agreed health and safety protocols are still needed, but said air travel can be safe if precautions are taken.

“The first report on the study of COVID-19 on board airplanes showed that the multiple layers of ventilation, face masks, distance on jet decks, disinfection and hygiene, when combined, reduced the risks of disease transmission, ”said Marcus, whose organization is studying the impact. aeronautical and airport practices in the area of ​​public health.

In response to questions from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Marcus said he believed the seats in the middle of flights could be filled “given the ventilation, given the wearing of masks, given the disinfection on board. planes, taking into account individual and personal hygiene ”on Planes.

The airline crisis has had an economic impact not only on airlines: Reynolds said Sky Harbor is the state of Arizona’s biggest economic engine.

She said Sky Harbor saw a record 46 million passengers in 2019 and was on track to break that record again in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

“In calendar year 2020, our total passenger count is down 53% from 2019, and the airport’s non-aeronautical revenue is down 36%,” said Reynolds.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers have stepped up cleaning and disinfecting windows and surfaces in Sky Harbor. (File photo by Allie Barton / Cronkite News)

Reynolds said the Aviation Department continues to take steps to help restore normalcy while safeguarding public health, such as cleaning up facilities “with high-tech systems and increased vigilance on duty. “.

“The aviation department is working with local health officials to organize events this month, offering free COVID-19 vaccination to tens of thousands of essential employees working at our airport,” she said. declared.

But she said federal funding will be needed for the gains to continue.

“As the nation emerges from the pandemic, additional funding for terminal renovations would help us make changes to increase physical distance and the deployment of contactless technology,” Reynolds said. “The renovations will also help us pay for upgrades, such as installing vertical circulation systems and electrostatic cleaning equipment.”

Senator Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., And chairman of the aviation safety, operations and innovation subcommittee that was holding the hearing, said government must support the implementation of health protocols for transportation air.

“At a time when we see an increase in the number of infections in parts of the country and abroad, we must not abandon mitigation efforts or put airline workers and their passengers at increased risk.” , Sinema said. “The confidence that air travel is safe is essential to the full recovery of our aviation system and our economy.”

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