DOT reassures Congress on COVID-19 response

U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elaine Chao outlined the department’s latest strategy to address the increasing threat posed by the coronavirus outbreak.

Testifying at a U.S. House Appropriations committee on DOT’s budget request Thursday, Chao said that while the main responsibility for coordinating response efforts lies with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, DOT’s coordinating role is dealing primarily with domestic and foreign airlines.

Chao said that role has so far included five separate measures: overseeing an “air bridge” to bring home thousands of U.S. citizens from China and Japan, ensuring that airline passenger and cargo traffic continues to move between the U.S. and China, health screening at 11 designated U.S. airports for American passengers who have traveled in coronavirus-stricken areas, health protocols to protect the crews of aircraft continuing to fly between the U.S. and foreign destinations, and health messages that airlines use to inform passengers about the virus.

“These containment measures have been effective, but we must be vigilant and plan for the possibility of community-based transmission in the U.S.,” Chao said. “We will be coordinating similar efforts with transit stakeholders, as part of this whole-of-government plan as well.”

Chao noted that while DOT has some oversight of maritime transportation, much of the response effort in that sector, including both commercial cargo ships and the cruise lines, is being coordinated by the U.S. Coast Guard, under DHS. The Coast Guard earlier this month placed restrictions on commercial ship crews entering U.S. ports who had been on ships that recently called at Chinese ports.

In January, President Donald Trump announced the formation of a coronavirus task force that included representatives from 12 Cabinet-level departments, including DOT. Chao’s reassurances came a day after Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to head the federal response to the virus.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus — technically known as COVID-19 — into South Korea and in Italy and other parts of Europe is raising fears in the passenger airline markets, with Lufthansa and Delta both announcing cost-cutting moves by reducing flights to China. Those reductions, in turn, have been placing all-cargo carriers in position to fill that demand.