The Federal Aviation Administration has just issued a new Safety Alert for Operators, (SAFO) containing guidance for airlines and aircrews on how to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Overall, the SAFO instructs airlines to follow the CDC’s guidance for the protection for employees in critical infrastructure jobs.  The FAA confirms that no airline employee should work if they have any symptoms of the virus, and that all employees exposed to someone who tests positive for the virus should be quarantined for fourteen days.  Employees who test positive for the virus cannot return to work unless they meet the CDC’s criteria for the Discontinuation of Isolation for Persons with COVID-19 not in Healthcare Settings.

While the FAA follows the CDC recommendation on the use of cloth face coverings, the FAA instructs air carriers to complete a safety risk assessment to determine the impact face coverings have on employees who may need to use an oxygen mask quickly.  The FAA also recommends that all airlines update their COVID-19 preparedness plans and procedures, and implement the CDC’s March 4, 2020 guidance on what to do if a passenger becomes sick during flight and for aircraft decontamination.

With regard to crewmember “social distancing,” the SAFO notes that:

FAA Exemption No. 18522 allows flight attendants to relocate from the seats they would normally occupy so they can observe social distancing. It also excuses them from having to demonstrate the use of certain emergency equipment including life preservers and oxygen masks, allowing for alternative methods to inform passengers regarding the use of such equipment.  Individual carriers must submit a Letter of Intent and be granted authorization by the FAA in order to exercise the relief in the exemption, which runs through June 30, 2020.

The FAA recommends that crewmembers verify with their air carrier that they have sought the appropriate relief.

The SAFO also includes a five-page outline with specific guidance and recommendations for both individual crewmembers and air carriers.  In particular, the FAA wants carriers to take a role in ensuring that their employees are not exposed to the virus.  This includes:

  • Arranging for private ground transport to move crews to hotels, or to the parking lot at their home base, that allows crews to maintain the recommended 6-foot (2-meter) distance from others.
  • Arranging to house flight crews in hotels that are in close proximity to the airport. Ensure that the hotel rooms are sanitized in advance of the crews’ arrival.

Finally, the FAA reiterates that, “consistent with 14 CFR § 382.23, airlines may refuse transportation to a passenger because of a communicable disease if the passenger’s condition poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.”

With reports that a vaccine for COVID-19 are still a year or more away, guidance such as this will play a key role in reopening the world to air travel.  As the FAA admits, however, there are still things that are not known about the disease and its spread.  As a result, we can expect the FAA and CDC to “update or supplement this SAFO as more information becomes available.”