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Most international airlines flying to West Africa in the grip of the deadly Ebola outbreak are counting on stepped-up passenger screening as they continue serving the region.
Air France fliers in some cities must complete health questionnaires and be checked for symptoms, including an elevated temperature, before boarding cards are issued. Delta Air Lines Inc. said travelers are being checked at the airport in Monrovia, Liberia, one of the countries hit by Ebola.
Keeping the disease from spreading via air traffic is a focus for medical officials grappling with 1,603 infections and 887 deaths since March. Only two airlines have suspended flights to West Africa so far, with British Airways opting yesterday to join Gulf carrier Emirates in pulling back.
U.S. carriers “that fly to the affected countries remain in steady contact with government agencies and health officials, and have procedures in place to monitor and quickly respond to potential health concerns,” said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Airlines for America trade group.
The Ebola outbreak centered in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone is the largest ever, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC is helping train Customs and Border Protection agents to watch for symptoms among passengers arriving in the U.S. on international flights, according to Airlines for America. American Airlines Group Inc., with no flights to Africa, has briefed workers on basics of Ebola and its symptoms.
Pre-boarding screenings in Africa are “a precaution, in response to reported viral activity,” Atlanta-based Delta said on its website.
Delta, the lone U.S. carrier with its own service to the Ebola-hit region, said customers whose flights are delayed or canceled due to health checks will get a refund. It’s also waiving fees for those who want to change flights, including connections to Freetown, Sierra Leone; Conakry, Guinea; and three locations in Nigeria.
Brussels Airlines, the only carrier outside Africa serving the three Ebola-afflicted nations, said it’s monitoring the situation by working with the World Health Organization and local authorities.
Ebola’s deadliness is casting a spotlight on international routes to and from Africa that usually get less attention than busy markets such as the North Atlantic. The risk: With connecting flights, an infected flier could leave one of the afflicted countries, be in close contact with travelers in two or three jet cabins in a matter of hours, and disembark half a world away.
This Ebola outbreak is killing about 60 percent of those who catch the virus, a decline from a historical mortality rate of about 90 percent. Health officials attribute the improvement to early treatment efforts of a disease that can cause bleeding from the eyes, ears and nose.
An advisory on the CDC’s website for airline workers details Ebola symptoms and encourages them to deny boarding for travelers suspected of being ill. It also tells how to manage passengers onboard who may have the disease and provides guidelines for airplane cleaners. Air France said its employees have been given similar information.
U.S. law requires pilots to alert the CDC before arrival about any onboard deaths or ill travelers who meet certain criteria.
British Airways said in a statement yesterday that it’s suspending flights to Sierra Leone and Liberia until Aug. 31 due to the “deteriorating public health situation.” Emirates halted service to Conakry last weekend, citing guidance from health authorities.
The Dubai-based carrier said it will assess its West African plans in light of feedback from the WHO and the CDC. The WHO holds an emergency committee meeting today on the Ebola outbreak and hasn’t issued any travel warnings so far, said Gregory Hartl, a spokesman.
Emirates, whose focus on intercontinental travel means tens of thousands of passengers change planes in Dubai each day, said flights that previously stopped at Conakry on the way to Dakar will now fly directly to the Senegalese capital, which sits outside the Ebola-afflicted zone.
–With assistance from Richard Weiss in Frankfurt, Andrea Rothman in Toulouse and Makiko Kitamura in London.
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