With help from Brianna Gurciullo and Tanya Snyder
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— Transit agencies are asking for nearly $24 billion more in federal help after projecting continued losses through 2021.
— A lack of federal mandates on Covid-19 for airlines has meant carriers are feeling their way through, and making missteps along the way.
— Amtrak will require riders to wear face coverings, matching a precedent set by airlines over the past few days.
IT’S FRIDAY: Thanks for tuning in to POLITICO’s Morning Transportation, your daily tipsheet on all things trains, planes, automobiles and ports. Get in touch with tips and feedback at [email protected] or @samjmintz.
“In the car, I just can’t wait / to pick you up on our very first date.”
LISTEN HERE: Follow MT’s playlist on Spotify. What better way to start your day than with songs (picked by us and readers) about roads, railways, rivers and runways.
MORE HELP NEEDED: Transit agencies are asking Congress for another $23.8 billion to help survive the coronavirus pandemic, nearly matching the initial round of government aid the industry received last month. Citing an independent economic analysis by EBP US, the American Public Transportation Association said Thursday that transit systems will have a nearly $24 billion shortfall through the end of 2021, even after receiving $25 billion through the CARES Act, H.R. 748 (116).
The stimulus money was a “lifesaver for public transit services but we now have a more complete picture of the extraordinary and devastating impact,” APTA CEO Paul Skoutelas said. Pro subscribers can read more from our Tanya Snyder.
FTA CLARIFIES CHINESE RAILCAR LAW: The agency published guidance to transit agencies on how to interpret Congress’ December mandate not to enter into contracts with Chinese government-backed bus and rail manufacturers. Among other things, the guidance clarifies that leases, not just procurements, are covered under the law and that the two-year grace period means a transit agency could enter into a new, multiyear contract with one of the banned companies as late as Dec. 20, 2021, without penalty.
APPROACH WITH CAUTION: A CDC guidance document that the White House rejected as too “prescriptive” would have delineated three phases for transit agencies to re-approach normalcy. Agencies would first restrict ridership to essential workers, then open up to other riders and progressively loosen social distancing mandates. Agencies would restrict routes between areas with different levels of outbreak to avoid transmission and strive to implement touchless payment mechanisms and no-touch trash cans and doors.
The CDC recommends other measures agencies are already taking in large numbers, like rear door entry, closing off every other row of seats, and setting floor decals to indicate where riders should and should not stand. It also recommends that agencies assign vulnerable workers duties that minimize their contact with others and implement flexible sick leave policies.
THE FEDERAL RESPONSE: Airlines are struggling to figure out how to operate in the absence of federal mandates, our Anthony Adragna reports. So far, DOT and other parts of the Trump administration have resisted setting coronavirus requirements for air travel, instead leaning on voluntary guidance from the CDC.
In the vacuum: Airlines resisted calls for mandatory mask policies, eventually relenting last week, as unions’ demands for a federal requirement have been brushed aside. In another incident, one carrier created — then quickly rescinded — a promotion that allowed customers to pay extra to ensure an empty middle seat next to them.
Criticism from the Hill: “The FAA has been a failure. They failed with not telling the airlines to protect the passengers and to protect the airline personnel,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a member of the House Transportation Committee, told POLITICO. He said the agency’s response to the coronavirus is in line with its handling of the Boeing 737 MAX crashes. “They have just been an embarrassment.”
BOARDING PASS? CHECK. TEMPERATURE? Frontier Airlines said Thursday that it will check the temperatures of passengers and employees before they board starting June 1. The airline will use “touchless” thermometers and deny boarding to any person with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher. A passenger could have their temperature checked twice, depending on departure time. But if their temperature is still 100.4 or higher during the second check, they’ll be denied boarding and the airline will work with them to rebook. Employees will be sent home if their temperatures reach 100.4 degrees or higher.
Preferably… In a statement, Frontier CEO Barry Biffle said passengers should go through screening when they enter an airport, but the airline will check temperatures itself for now. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly earlier this week said TSA should check passengers’ temperatures.
SPEAKING OF SCREENING WOES… A new report by House investigators raised concerns about the effectiveness of early U.S. efforts to prevent the arrival of coronavirus cases from abroad, particularly when it came to screening air travelers returning from hotspots like Italy and South Korea. According to a stellar POLITICO reporting team that included our Brianna Gurciullo, “U.S. officials opted to rely on their foreign counterparts to conduct those screenings — and depended primarily on airport visits and verbal commitments to ensure that they were done, investigators found.”
ALPA TAKES TO TWITTER: An Air Line Pilots Association official on Thursday claimed that “airline lobbyists” had told senators that they hadn’t heard of concerns raised by pilots about airlines failing to adhere to federal guidelines on cleaning and other matters. “That’s surprising since we sent them two letters in April asking them to collaborate,” Bob Fox, the union’s first vice president, said in a video message posted to Twitter. “Now is not the time to play politics.”
In response, Airlines for America noted that its chief executive, Nick Calio, said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday that the group had received a letter from ALPA and had asked the union for examples. “We have been unable to find a trend,” Calio said at the hearing. ALPA on Wednesday released a document describing reports from pilots on “unsatisfactory Covid-19 safety precautions” at more than a dozen carriers.
MASKS IN AIRPORTS: TSA employees will have to wear face coverings while at screening checkpoints, the agency announced Thursday, to “help minimize spread of COVID-19 and help raise the overall health and safety level inside the airport environment.” Reporting from earlier this week suggested that TSA would also require passengers to wear masks at checkpoints, but the security agency did not include that in its announcement. For now, travelers are only “encouraged.” (Airlines for America, just hours after the announcement, urged TSA to require them for passengers.)
MASKS ON TRAINS, TOO: Amtrak followed the lead of airlines on Thursday, announcing that it would require face coverings for all customers on trains and in stations starting next week. The mandate leaves some openings, including when riders are eating, in private rooms, or sitting alone or with a traveling companion.
The railroad is also planning to restart Acela service with a modified schedule on June 1, Tanya scooped.
TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES: Nobody is spared the challenges of teleconferencing, not even the federal agency tasked with overseeing some of the most technologically complex machines in the world. The FAA canceled an aviation safety town hall on Thursday, at which Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Administrator Steve Dickson were set to speak. “Several key participants had connectivity issues,” the agency told POLITICO in a statement. “Rather than move forward and have an important discussion interrupted, we opted to postpone until a date in the near future.”
DOT FUNDING FOR RECALLS: NHTSA announced a grant program that will give states funding to help drivers learn about and repair safety recalls on their vehicles. Up to six states will receive part of a total of $1.5 million, after what DOT says was a successful pilot in Maryland.
UPDATE ON TRAFFICKING EFFORT: More than 200 transportation organizations have been added to DOT’s “Put the Brakes on Human Trafficking” pledge, Chao announced this week.
CHAO SPEAKS: Chao said in an interview with conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt Thursday morning that reopening the economy “cannot happen fast enough” because of the “devastating” toll of skyrocketing unemployment. Among the highlights: She said mask requirements on airlines are “common sensical” and acknowledged that liability protection is the subject of “a great deal of concern” for airlines and trucking companies but did not offer policy solutions.
ENDORSEMENT COUNTER: It wasn’t ever in question, but “Amtrak Joe” Biden received an official endorsement from the Transport Workers Union of America, which praised his call for an emergency temporary standard and more personal protective equipment and testing for frontline workers. “Over his entire career, he has demonstrated the strongest commitment to workers in every transportation sector,” TWU said.
A big congratulations to POLITICO New York’s Dana Rubinstein, who will take her stellar reporting on transportation and more to the New York Times.
— “Supreme Court overturns ‘Bridgegate’ convictions as Christie slams ‘political crusade.’” POLITICO.
— “Automakers target May 18 for production restart.” POLITICO Pro.
— “Travel from New York City seeded wave of U.S. outbreaks.” New York Times.
— “AOC and other New Yorkers are slamming JetBlue’s planned flyover around ground zero to honor frontline workers.” Business Insider.
— “Uber loses $2.9 billion, offloads bike and scooter business.” Associated Press.
DOT appropriations run out in 145 days. The FAA reauthorization expires in 1,241 days. Highway and transit policy is up for renewal in 145 days.