Biden's options to revive the ravaged travel economy

By Jessica Wehrman
CQ-Roll Call/TNS

WASHINGTON — One of the first tasks President-elect Joe Biden will face when he assumes office will be to bring back an economy crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the hardest-hit industries: travel. The U.S. travel economy has lost about $500 billion since the pandemic began last March - a daily loss of $1.75 billion, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Biden has promised to take a number of steps to restore the nation’s confidence in travel. Here are a few of the steps that he’s been asked or has committed to take.

During the pandemic’s early days, transportation groups begged U.S. Department of Transportation officials to require airlines and other transportation companies to provide protective equipment to workers and require their use.

But the DOT made it clear: Its role was to coordinate with other agencies and provide a regulatory environment that made it easier to move goods and services.

“While the FAA remains steadfast in its focus on safety of flight, we are not a public health agency,” wrote FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson in late March when asked by Air Line Pilots Association International President Joe DePete to make mandatory CDC guidelines on protecting workforces from the spread of the coronavirus.

Three months later, the message was unchanged. “DOT is not a public health agency,” a DOT spokesman said after transportation workers complained to a House panel about the absence of such a requirement.

The assertion, said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA,  is “100 percent absurd.”

DOT has taken the lead on banning e-cigarettes from airlines, she said. It played a major role in helping to quash the transmission of Ebola. And the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has argued since at least 1999 that because DOT oversees airlines, it does not have jurisdiction over aircraft crews.

Greg Regan, secretary-treasurer of the Transportation Trades Department at the AFL-CIO, said Biden and Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg would likely take a more aggressive approach.

“DOT is a public health agency,” Regan said. “It does have a responsibility when it comes to public health in our transportation system.”

While nearly all passenger airlines have instituted some passenger mask requirement, Nelson said Biden’s promise to require masks on all interstate travel would provide much-needed uniformity.

For example, some airlines initially did not ban masks with face valves, though most have since moved to do so. Other airlines have varying policies on medical exemptions or mask requirements for young children.

In October, Biden promised to institute a nationwide mask mandate, and he’s since said he will ask Americans to join him for 100 days of mask wearing after he is sworn in.

That’s a sharp difference from the Trump White House, which has rejected a universal mask requirement on public transportation.

In July, the White House opposed as “overly restrictive” a spending bill that included an amendment by Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., the chairman of the House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, requiring masks on planes, trains and buses.

The DOT also rejected a petition from a group called the “Flyers Rights Education Fund” seeking a mask mandate at airports and for U.S. airlines, saying the department believes “there should be no more regulations than necessary.”

Nelson said much of the heavy lifting has already been done, with most airlines requiring masks. Now, she said, a federal mandate that will create uniformity  “is job number one.”

In the days after the 9/11 attacks, the federal government put out unified messaging: If you see something, they urged, say something.

Such messaging is one of the most important things the federal government can do to ensure confidence in travel once the pandemic is passed, analysts say.

Martina Jones-Johnson, a founding member and board officer for the Black Travel Alliance, said standardization of rules - and clear messaging on what those rules are - would help people who must travel figure out the best way to do so safely.

“America in general - we’re just a very individualistic culture,” she said. “As much as we say we’re all in this together, a lot of people don’t feel that way. Some unifying message could maybe make us feel more together.”

But messaging, she warns, can only go so far.

“We need something to get rid of this virus,” she said. “That’s when we’ll start to do a lot of traveling.”

While labor groups representing transportation workers say they have no interest in cutting ahead of health care workers or vulnerable populations, they’ve made it clear believe their members should be a priority population for the COVID-19 vaccines.

“We are absolutely advocating flight attendants be among the first to get vaccinated,” said Nelson, who added that transportation workers are on the front lines and thus more likely to be exposed.

Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy for the U.S. Travel Association, argues that some aspects of the travel industry should be prioritized because of frequent interaction with the public. She includes airline workers, hotel workers and restaurant workers.

“If they were able to have the vaccine, it gives a greater protection to those out and about,” she said. “It would lessen the chance of others getting the virus.”

Even as Congress worked late last year to finish up a $908 billion coronavirus relief bill with $45 billion in aid for the travel industry, Biden said it was merely a “down payment” on what was needed to revive the economy.

The relief, which includes $15 billion to reinstate payroll reimbursements to airlines, will only last through March. The law also includes $1 billion for airline contractors, $2 billion for airports and concessionaires, $14 billion for transit, $10 billion for state highways, $1 billion for Amtrak and $2 billion for buses, motor coaches and ferries.

Barnes said additional stimulus funding in a Biden presidency would help guide the economy through the remainder of the pandemic.

“To get folks moving, we need consistent recovery to get us through this next year,” she said, saying the package that passed in December was “a bridge to 2021.”

For some modes, such as airlines, it was the second tranche of funding. The first round of $25 billion worth airline payroll funding, which was part of the $2 trillion stimulus bill, expired in October, leading to tens of thousands of furloughs.

Nelson said many of the furloughed workers who returned have to be recertified and re-credentialed, and by the time that’s done, the newest round of aid will be expiring.

“We’ve seen how damaging this was to let this lapse,” she said. “We can’t let it happen again.”

US President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Electoral College certification at the Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware on Dec. 14, 2020.