Airline sick passenger rules allow diseases to spread
This winter, airlines and hundreds of passengers suffered serious delays because of sickness aboard planes landing in the US. These kinds of incidents are shining a light on the airline practice of not allowing passengers to change their flights without penalties even when they come with letters from doctors.
The airline sick passenger rules affected me personally when I found out that I had pneumonia just before getting ready to fly back to the US. When I asked Delta Air Lines whether I could fly three days later because I had been diagnosed with pneumonia, had a doctor’s note, and x-rays to show my condition, I was told that if I did not use my ticket, I would be charged a $300 change fee and would have to pay the full fare for my flight rather than my discounted ticket.
The flight change was far more expensive than I was willing to pay. However, I was willing to pay for my costs in Madrid for a small hotel and meals. But, Delta was not budging on its demand to extract extra money from me to stay in Madrid for another three days. The Delta airline sick passenger rules forced me to fly. Interestingly, the Delta crew could have refused to allow me on the plane, though a doctor’s note and three-day-old x-rays had no influence.
Airline passengers suffer sickness because of these airline sick passenger rules.
The effects of forcing sick passengers to pay extra to postpone a trip came home to roost earlier this month when flights flown by Emirates Airlines and American Airlines reported dozens of passengers sick and many were tested and detained. When sick passengers are packed into a loaded aircraft, the chances of a disease spreading is high and only gets more dramatic when one considers that the air, complete with germs, is then recirculated through the plane.
A flight from the Middle East flown by Emirates Airlines landed in JFK and was quarantined because more than 100 passengers claimed to be sick.
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state, local and airport authorities met the stricken Emirates plane when it landed Wednesday morning at John F. Kennedy International Airport after a long flight. Initial reports said 100 passengers were sick. All passengers and crew members were evaluated, with seven crew members and three passengers hospitalized. (The CDC puts the number hospitalized at 11, one higher than the airline and other authorities.)
The next day, American Airlines flights from Munich and Paris both reported passenger sickness outbreaks.
Passengers and crew on two flights arriving in Philadelphia from Europe on Thursday were screened by medical teams after 12 people aboard became ill with flu-like symptoms, a day after a similar outbreak on a flight from Dubai to New York.
Flight 717 from Munich and Flight 755 from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris both arrived in Philadelphia on Thursday afternoon, she said.
The CDC worked with Philadelphia health officers, emergency responders and Customs and Border Patrol agents to evaluate the sick passengers for influenza and other respiratory illnesses, CDC spokesman Benjamin Haynes said.
“Twelve passengers from the two flights reported sore throat and cough, and none were identified with fever. None of the passengers are severely ill, and they will be released and informed of test results in 24 hours,” Haynes said.
…Separately, health officials in Houston said they were looking into a case of a person with measles possibly exposing others to the virus during a flight connection at that city’s Hobby Airport on Aug. 21 and 22.
CDC recommends those with the flu avoid travel for 24 hours after fever is gone.
The Center for Disease Control officially recommends “people sick with flu stay home and avoid travel for at least 24 hours after their fever is gone.” However, airlines will not allow passengers to do that without paying a whopping cancellation fee or change fee of $200 for domestic flights and $300 and more for international flights. Plus, airlines will then charge passengers petitioning them for a change in schedule to pay the last-minute airfares that can add hundreds of dollars to sick passenger expenses.
The World Health Organization rules: Travelers with medical conditions
These rules mean airlines can make medical decisions about which passenger to allow onboard flights. However, doctors are not allowed to stop passengers from flying. This is truly an upside-down world.
Airlines have the right to refuse to carry passengers with conditions that may worsen, or have serious consequences, during the flight. They may require medical clearance from their medical department/adviser if there is an indication that a passenger could be suffering from any disease or physical or mental condition that:
- may be considered a potential hazard to the safety of the aircraft;
- adversely affects the welfare and comfort of the other passengers and/or crew members;
- requires medical attention and/or special equipment during the flight;
- may be aggravated by the flight.
If cabin crew suspect before departure that a passenger may be ill, the aircraft’s captain will be informed and a decision taken as to whether the passenger is fit to travel, needs medical attention or presents a danger to other passengers and crew or to the safety of the aircraft.
It is time that airlines allow passengers with legitimate illnesses to postpone flights. It is far better for everyone — passengers, the crew and the airline — to permit sick passengers to change flights in order to stop them from infecting others.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past ten years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018. He also served on the Consumer Advocacy Subcommittee of the Transportation Security Advisory Board.