Swine Flu Poses Challenge for Airlines
Airlines say they're preparing for the return of swine flu this fall but stop short of declaring they'll bar passengers with symptoms from planes or give refunds for trips canceled because of the illness.
Rather than impose special measures to deal with the H1N1 virus, several U.S. carriers emphasize they'll follow long-standing policies that permit them to keep an ill person from flying, whatever the sickness.
"We do definitely reserve that right to take a look at someone, and if they exhibit signs of having a communicable disease and flying is not in their best interest, we can definitely take them off and get them the medical care that they need," says Paul Flaningan, a Southwest spokesman.
Some airlines say they're waiting to see whether to offer refunds or waive rebooking fees for passengers who cannot fly because they are sick.
"We're going to proceed with our normal policies, and if the situation were to change drastically then we'd have to examine that," says Christopher White, spokesman for AirTran Airways.
Some also say they'll continue precautions - such as offering passengers anti-bacterial wipes and keeping blankets and pillows off planes - they began in the spring when the flu strain emerged.
The virus, which broke out in the U.S. and Mexico, hurt an already struggling airline industry. Airlines cut flights in and out of Mexico by nearly half, says the Air Transport Association, which represents major U.S. carriers. Airlines say concerns about the virus cut into revenue. Delta, for instance, says the flu cost it $125 million to $150 million in the second quarter.
The damage could be greater in coming weeks. A report from a White House advisory panel last week projected as many as half the people in the USA could become infected with the virus and as many as 30,000 to 90,000 deaths could result.
So far, neither the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the World Health Organization has called for travel restrictions, although planes can play a major role in spreading the flu.
"The plane can move people around and migrate the infection," says William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. "But it also can be an enclosed environment where people can then acquire the infection from their neighbors."
Schaffner says it's impractical to screen out infected passengers before they board a plane.
"Put yourself in the position of a poor gate agent," he says. "So someone who blows their nose once is OK - or you blow your nose twice, that's enough to keep you off?"
The Air Transport Association, which represents 12 passenger airlines, says 92% of the planes its members fly are equipped with hospital-grade air filters that are effective in screening out airborne germs and reducing the risk of contracting the flu.
Among steps airlines say they've taken:
Virgin America has anti-bacterial wipes and sanitizing gel on planes and at airports for passengers and crew. It began equipping flights with masks for passengers who might become sick, and stripped daytime flights of pillows and blankets, providing a limited number that are sterilized and pre-wrapped on red-eye flights only.
Southwest, which has a task force to deal with the upcoming flu season, has removed pillows and blankets from flights.