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Sen. Mike Lee questions requirement that airlines fly empty planes amid pandemic

Sen. Mike Lee
Utah Sen. Mike Lee
Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee questioned Wednesday a rule under the coronavirus relief bill that airlines maintain scheduled flights that were in place prior to March 1 despite the drop in passengers due to travel restrictions and other government mandates.

“Does the requirement that you have to maintain air service at pre-COVID-19 levels and based on pre-COVID-19 flights, does that make sense and does it allow the industry to restructure and do what else it needs to do in order to respond?” the Utah Republican asked during a Senate committee hearing.

Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of Airlines for America, said it causes a lot of planes to fly with fewer than five passengers. He said it doesn’t make sense to have multiple carriers flying multiple flights into places where there is no demand.

“That does not help any kind of liquidity problems and our employees in the long run,” he said. “It harms the consumer because the recovery will be longer. The chance of keeping the most employees on board will be undermined, and if you want to look at it from an environmental point of view, we shouldn’t be flying airplanes that are empty.”

Airlines for America lobbies for major U.S. carriers, including American, Delta and JetBlue.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing looked at how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the airline industry.

One of the requirements to receive portions of $25 billion in federal payroll grants and loans under the rescue package is that airlines must keep a certain number of flights, which varies by carrier and is based on schedules before the virus spread widely.

The Department of Transportation has issued some waivers, but Calio called the minimum service requirements “unsustainable.”

Lee said taxpayer dollars going to the industry would stretch further if airlines had flexibility to account for flights that aren’t in demand.

U.S. air travel dropped 96% in April to the lowest levels since the 1950s, according to Airlines for America. On April 8, the Transportation Security Administration screened a record low 97,000 air travelers at the nation’s airports — an average of only 220 passengers per airport across the country.

Some of the committee discussion centered on whether the government should impose uniform public health standards on airlines and airports going forward, including disinfecting aircraft, social distancing and passengers and employees wearing masks.

Hilary Godwin, dean of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, told the panel that national regulations or guidance can help to reduce the risk of reseeding the pandemic.

While most public health measures are left to the discretion of states, it would be extremely difficult to communicate and enforce a patchwork set of rules for travelers going from one state to another or entering the U.S. and passing through different states, she said.

Major airlines are now requiring passengers and crews to wear masks. They’ve also initiated deeper cleaning of aircraft cabins, including with disinfectant.

Todd Hauptli, president and CEO of the American Association of Airport Executives, said airports are cleaner than they ever have been but it’s going to take billions of more dollars to install thermal cameras, plexiglass and other social distancing measures to create “touchless” travel.

“We’re going to have to get past the sticker shock and say yes,” he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., noted that Frontier Airlines started charging passengers $39 to guarantee a spot next to an unoccupied middle seat. She said it isn’t appropriate for those who can’t afford the extra fee to be less safe than other passengers.

Calio resisted the suggestion of uniform regulations, saying the market would take care of it.

“Well, it didn’t with Frontier,” Klobuchar replied.

Lee questioned the need for more requirements on the airlines, saying, “Last I checked, the airline industry is still heavily regulated.”

Calio said more regulations would increase prices and decrease affordability of air travel.