At this high-travel time of year, looking around the cabin at all the passengers coughing and sneezing, you might wonder how likely you are to contract an infectious disease from a fellow air traveler.
Good news: You’re pretty well protected against dire disease, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times. It recalled how, a few weeks ago, more than 70 passengers on a US Airways Express plane were greeted onboard a jet in Phoenix by police and paramedics, who announced that a fellow flier might have tuberculosis, causing much consternation among both passengers and health authorities.
As it turned out, testing by the local county health department later confirmed the passenger was not infected with TB, and that his fellow travelers were safe from that contagious airborne disease. Even better, it’s extremely rare for a passenger with a highly contagious disease even to be able to board a commercial plane, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As The Times explained, local health officials alert the CDC about people who have highly contagious diseases that their doctors are required to report. The CDC then notifies the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which adds their names to a “Do Not Board” list, similar to the “No Fly” list used to deny potential or suspected terrorists from boarding commercial planes.
The US Airways Express passenger apparently was added to the “Do Not Board” list after he had boarded the plane. As The Times reported, it’s the first time TSA officials recalled a passenger being added to the list after boarding.
Since May 2007, 314 people have been put on the “Do Not Board” list; today, there are only 68 names on the list.
When someone with a supposedly serious communicable disease has traveled by air, the CDC contacts anyone whose seat was within four to seven seats of that person. It uses the flight’s manifest to identify people who might have been exposed. How many passengers are contacted depends on the disease, how it spreads and where the infected passenger was seated.
Your name is added to the “Do Not Board” list if you have been reported to have one of nine contagious diseases:
- yellow fever
- viral hemorrhagic fever
- a flu that can cause a pandemic.
As CDC spokesman Benjamin N. Haynes told The Times, “With the exception of TB, most of the other diseases are extremely rare or eradicated, in the case of smallpox, so the issue hasn’t arisen.”
For run-of-the-mill colds and flu, well … you’re on your own. Avoid passengers who seem ill, especially if they are coughing and sneezing. Consider wearing a surgical face mask; it’s not impenetrable, but it does offer another barrier between your mouth and nose, vulnerable entries for microbes.
And if you’re ill, of course, it’s best not to fly, both for your health and that of others. But if there’s no way to avoid it, wear a mask.