How Airports Prepare For Diseases Like Ebola

Share By Sachin Shenolikar

It’s been a tumultuous summer for the airline industry to say the least, and the current Ebola outbreak in Africa — combined with news that two American patients were flown into the United States — has amplified anxiety. Could infected people unsuspectedly come to the U.S.? And what protocols are in place to prevent an outbreak here?

“There is always the possibility that someone with an infectious disease can enter the United States,” CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said earlier this week. “The public health concern is whether it would spread and, if so, how quickly.”

But here’s a comforting fact: Airlines and airports are ready to prevent deadly infectious disease outbreaks. “A few years ago, the SARS virus and bird flu [threats] forced everybody in the transportation industry to have a plan in place when there is that kind of incident,” Jeffrey Price, principal at Leading Edge Strategies and author of Practical Aviation Security, told Real Business.

Airports use an all-hazards approach for emergency planning. There is a set of situations that are outlined, such as plane crashes, bomb threats, hazardous materials, and medical issues. If airline or airport personnel notice something unusual, the course of action is covered in one of the existing plans. When it comes to dangerous infectious diseases, the key is for the security officials to always be on the lookout for symptoms.

“Airlines can’t become so focused on put the passenger on the plane, collect the revenue, and let’s get the flight out on time,” says Price. “They have to have that awareness in terms of people coming up to the ticket counter, up to the gate. Are they sneezing? Are they wheezing? Do they look pale and are sweaty when it’s 52 degrees outside? Then ask [passengers] intelligent questions and go from there.”

If a passenger boards a plane and later shows signs of a potentially infectious disease beyond the flu or common cold, airline pilots and stewards have access to services such as MedAire’s MedLink to help with diagnoses. While in flight, “they can contact a medical facility and say, ‘Look, we’ve got a person on board, they have these symptoms, this is where we’re coming from. What do you think this is?’” says Price.

If there’s cause for alarm, pilots get in touch with their air carrier hub, which notifies the airport operator about the situation and sets an emergency plan in motion on the ground — figuring out what to do with the affected individuals or flight, whether quarantines are needed, and notifying the officials at the CDC. It is treated the same as a security incident. “They won’t take that plane to the gate — they’ll put it in an isolated part of the airfield,” says Price.

The bottom line is, a situation that involves a potentially contagious passenger won’t come as a surprise to airline officials — and they know exactly what to do. After going through the SARS and bird flu scares last decade, protocols have been tweaked and organized to be able to adapt on the fly to new threats. It is now understood that emergency response action plans are not just for security issues and accidents — they’re needed for infectious diseases, too.

“Airports should review their plans and make sure they’re in place,” says Price. “Make sure the medical facilities can be contacted, and that the [facilities] know how to integrate with the airport in order to respond.”

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