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Airlines are adjusting to a reality of the Ebola era: Crews are holding planes on the tarmac to ensure that a traveler’s inflight illness isn’t due to the deadly virus.
Seven flights to Paris, Europe’s second-busiest hub, were temporarily isolated to check on flier maladies. U.S. quarantine specialists assessed twice as many sick passengers in the past two weeks as a year earlier, and four more airports will add Ebola screening this week to follow New York’s Kennedy.
While none of the evaluations turned up an Ebola infection, they reflect the extra caution being taken by airlines and rising tensions for employees. The risks were punctuated by the first Ebola case diagnosed in the U.S., a Liberian man who arrived after flying through Brussels, Washington and Dallas.
“Any time that someone has had a symptom in-flight, Ebola has been one of the top concerns,” said T.J. Doyle, medical director of Pittsburgh-based STAT-MD, which works with Delta Air Lines Inc. and about 20 other carriers.
The prospect of Ebola infection in the confined space of a jetliner also is refocusing attention on cabin cleaning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reminded airline custodial crews this month of the need for thoroughness, especially in disinfecting surfaces near any sick traveler.
London’s Heathrow airport began checking some arriving fliers yesterday from Africa’s Ebola-afflicted nations, implementing Europe’s strictest precautions. All Heathrow terminals will have screening by week’s end, and London’s Gatwick airport and the St. Pancras terminal for Eurostar train service from Paris and Brussels will join by next week.
Ebola had claimed the lives of more than 4,000 people as of Oct. 8, almost all of them in the West African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, according to the CDC.
Like Heathrow, no U.S. airport has nonstop service to the Ebola-ravaged countries. The U.S. and U.K. screening is focused on fliers who make connections, as occurred with Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola-infected man who flew to Dallas in September on United Airlines. He died last week.
“It’s still coming together, but it’s a good precaution,” said Heathrow traveler Clive Patterson, 32, a documentary filmmaker who was screened yesterday after spending more than a week in Liberia filming footage on Ebola. “You can’t rely on the facilities and procedures of another country.”
He flew to Liberia on Royal Air Maroc and back on Brussels Airlines, the only European carrier still serving Monrovia.
Patterson — who had been in “close contact” with people in Liberia — said he and a colleague volunteered to be screened and that the process took about 15 minutes, including the temperature check and a health-related questionnaire. A couple of other people were also being evaluated, he said.
The U.S. flight screening that began last week at Kennedy covers passengers from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. New Jersey’s Newark Liberty, Chicago’s O’Hare, Washington’s Dulles and Atlanta’s Hartsfield will be next to get the passenger checkups.
CDC quarantine specialists were deployed 17 times to evaluate a passenger illness in the two weeks ended Sept. 30, according to Jason McDonald, a spokesman. That compares with seven such incidents a year earlier.
Carriers are taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach to suspected onboard illnesses.
On Oct. 13, five fliers with flu-like symptoms were hustled off an Emirates Airline jet in Boston, three days after a Delta plane was held temporarily at the Las Vegas airport because of concern that a traveler on board might have been ill with Ebola.
There were no public-health issues in either of those cases, nor on a United jet in Newark on Oct. 4 where passengers were kept in their seats for almost two hours because a man was vomiting. The plane arrived from Brussels, the jumping-off point for the jets to Washington and then Dallas that brought Duncan to Texas last month.
United, a unit of United Continental Holdings Inc. offered Ebola screening to flight attendants who were on Duncan’s flights. People infected with Ebola aren’t contagious before they show symptoms, which include fever, vomiting and diarrhea, according to the CDC.
STAT-MD, the medical consultant that works with airlines, gets calls regularly from flight crew members. “We are getting probably two, three, four a day over the last 10 days,” said Doyle, the medical director.
On Oct. 9, airplane-cabin cleaners for a Delta contractor at New York’s LaGuardia Airport briefly walked off the job. The Service Employees International Union, which is trying to represent employees at Air Serv Corp., said workers were exposed to unsafe conditions and potential hazards, including the Ebola virus. The strike was planned before the outbreak.
European airports that still serve the Ebola-afflicted regions of West Africa are relying on screening at the point of departure and en route. These include Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, where Air France flies to Conakry, Guinea’s capital. There, the Ebola precautions are limited to posters alerting travelers about the disease.
Frankfurt airport, Europe’s No. 3 by passenger numbers, has no flights to the Ebola region. It has no special measures in place beyond briefing people arriving from Nigeria, its closest destination to the area, on how to detect symptoms, according to Dieter Hulick, a spokesman for owner Fraport AG.
Temperature checks are becoming common in African airports to catch early indications of trouble.
Arrivals at Johannesburg’s international airport are greeted by a border official with a heat sensor to detect fevers. Bespectacled passengers are asked to remove their glasses, because red or bleeding eyes can be a clue. Each flier must complete a health questionnaire. At Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam airport, a camera measures body temperature.
While some U.S. political leaders have called for banning arriving passengers from the West Africa Ebola region, President Barack Obama’s administration has rejected that idea. The U.K. decided this week to scrap plans to let West African airline Gambia Bird begin flights between London and Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. British Airways halted flights there weeks ago, ending the U.K.’s last direct link.
“Our priority is tackling the spread of Ebola and protecting the British public from the disease,” the U.K. government said in a statement. “Any inconvenience to passengers is unfortunate, but this is the right thing to do.”
–With assistance from Thomas Black and Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas, Jennifer Kaplan in New York and Christopher Spillane in Johannesburg.
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