Monday, April 24, 2006

Mumps Outbreak From Sick Travelers

The other day when I was flying, a passenger was denied boarding because they were ill. 
I don't know all the specifics of the passenger's symptoms, as it happened on the ground, all I know is that there were lots of people grumbling that an airline shouldn't be able to decide someone is too sick to travel.  After all, the passenger just wanted to get home.
Flying a bunch of people around in a long metal tube involves some issues of public health. 
And if you don't think so, consider that passengers infected with the mumps caused the disease to spread to epidemic proportions in seven miswestern states.  People were exposed in the airport as well as on the plane.
To date, over 600 suspected cases of mumps have been reported in Iowa , Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. 
The incubation period for months is two to three weeks, so it's entirely possible we will see more cases of the disease appearing in the next week.
Remember -- if you're sick, do yourself and everyone, else a favor -- don't fly!
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AJ said...

Why would they do anyone a favor? It's all about them.

Melissa said...

It's the "I don't care anymore about everyone else. I just need to go home" syndrome.

On one hand, you can understand how it feels. However, it also is very irresponsible since being contained inside an airplane will definitely mean that the disease will be spread.

Unfortunately, the percentage of selfless/responsible passengers would probably be less than those who'd think of others first.

Astroprof said...

An aircraft is the perfect place to spread airborne disease. Sadly, not thinking about the risk to others when flying while ill is part of the epedimic of not thinking about anyone else that seems to be the theme of modern society.
However, does the airline offer any sort of refund or transfer of ticket to a passenger who voluntarily does not fly due to illness? Or, would such a passenger have to eat the price of the ticket or perhaps pay a stiff fee to change the date of the flight?

Andrew said...

I would gladly do this if the air travel industry wouldn't charge me a fortune for doing so. Like most leisure travelers, I buy deeply-discounted advance-purchase tickets.

You show up at the airport the day of travel, feel a little -- but not too much -- off, and think, "Gee, I can play it safe...or I can avoid spending $150-$1000 for a new ticket." What are you gonna do?

(And, yeah, it really can be that much, because you have to pay the $150+ change fee on top of the difference in airfare, and last-minute fares ain't remotely cheap.)

Certainly it's not a completley trivial proposal, because you have to watch out for business travellers using this as a low-cost "change ticket" option and so on. But penalizing people hundreds or thousands of dollars just because they're trying to help other people stay healthy is not OK.

(P.S.: Fly Girl, believe me, I realize you don't set these rules. ;-) I'm just trying to offer up some constructive ideas to the multi-millionaires that do...)

Fly Girl said...

Astroprof: I don't know what happens if you call the airlines and tell them that you are too sick too travel. I'd be curious to know how it would be handled. Has anyone done this?

Andrew: You make lots of valid points. Most of them come under the title, "If I ran the airlines. . . ."

Teresa Valdez Klein said...

I tend to agree with Andrew. I've tried to avoid flying while sick, but there's not much for it when the airline industry wants an arm and a leg to make changes to my itinerary.

To be considerate of my fellow passengers if I'm flying while sick, I always make sure to bring along a surgeon's mask, and I keep it on the whole flight. I also bring hand sanitizer and plenty of virus trapping tissues.

Teresa Valdez Klein said...

Oh, and once when I really was too sick to fly, I tried to get Alaska to change my ticket - and they did charge me.

Fly Girl said...

Teresa: I wonder if you produced a physician's note which indicated that you were contagious and unable to fly how the airline would have handled it. This is an area beyond my expertise, so I'm just ruminating here.

It seems like the airlines can tell you that you are sick and they won't transport you. TSA can tell you that you are sick and can't fly. But what are the individual rights of the passenger to remove themselves from the very situation that everyone else wants them (and has the authority to) removed from?

It's a interesting question and,unfortunately, one that I'm unable to investigate and still preserve my anonymity.

Any takers to launch this a research project?

Anonymous said...

You will certainly be charged the change fee (usually around $100) plus any difference in fare - which can be substantial, especially if you're travelling on deeply discounted coach fares - if the change or desire to fly is "voluntary" or done by the you the passenger. While it can seem unfair, I'm sure the issue is that if this weren't the case you would have tons of travelers buying discounted, non-refundable, coach fares and just say that they are sick when they want to change flights at the last minute. Certainly an imperfect system.

I would imagine however, that if the airline involuntarily bumped you from a flight, they would put you on another flight without the change fees and/or fare differences. This is definitely the case when a passenger is involutarily bumped due to other reasons such as overbooking, etc... they are placed on another flight without having to pay the change fees/penalties. The real issue is that you can't PLAN on taking a different flight due to illness, you can only be "forced" if you want to avoid any fees.

I'm pretty sure that there are ways to avoid the fees without going all the way to the gate and getting denied boarding, but that is another story entirely.

As a very frequent business traveler - nearly every week - I am always wary about getting sick from fellow passengers on aircraft and do a couple of things to help prevent it. One BIG thing is VITAMINS... In fact a flight attendant a while ago told me about a fizzy vitamin drink that she and many other FAs take to increase their immunity, and it has been very helpful. The other big thing is always wash your hands... surprising how much these two easy things help.

Fly Girl said...

Yes, I know that if you "voluntarily" change your flight that there is a change fee, plus any additional flight charges.

However, I do know that there are exceptions to that rule, depending on the carrier. My carrier, for example, does allow a "free" change if there is a death in the family. I think the person has to provide a death certificate or copy of a funeral notice or something like that.

So, my thought was that carriers may also have an exception for serious illness requiring a physician's statement or something like that. I'm sure that it wouldn't be publicized, but would be handled on a case-by-case basis by the reservation agents.

Anyone tried this or know?

Helen said...

I was sitting in a crowded airport one time next to this young woman on her cellphone. She kept talking about how she was running a high fever, and had been throwing up, and dizzy. She asked someone to come get her because she wasn't sure she was going to be able to drive her car home.

I got up and moved right away!

Fortunately, she wasn't on my flight, but I feel sorry for the people who were.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if any airline has an actual policy for bringing a doctor's note. I've never heard of one. I did know about the death issue, which isn't too uncommon.

The reality of the matter is, if I was truly too sick to fly, I would go to the airport and have a civil/friendly conversation with a ticket agent or gate agent and tell them that I was sick and then they could bump me "involuntarily". This really only works if the flight you're getting on is one that is leaving from home, if you get sick in the middle of the trip, I wouldn't think you'd want to hang out in a hotel and incur that expense until you're better, I'd bet that you'd want to get home to recuperate.

Also, thinking about it, it would only work (for the airline) if you were willing to reschedule the flight right then and there. For example, "I'm too sick to fly today, but should be ok by the day after tomorrow", and then change the ticket immediately. Leaving that type of reschedule, not to mention cancellation, open to "whenever I feel better" would not fly at all. In fact I'll bet that the death rule mentioned earlier probably doesn't give the passenger an open ended return either.

I guess sometimes doing the right thing (not flying while sick) is not the easy or cheap route... often times it's much more expensive.

You really can't reasonably expect the airlines to leave that kind of loophole open as they are a business and need to make a profit to survive... although there are a bunch of carriers now testing that theory.

By the way, I'm in complete agreement with fly girl that plane tickets are far too cheap. The pendulum has swung way too far, and it will end up hurting passengers and has already hurt service levels and the travelling experience.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled across your blog while looking for info on flying while sick. My 5 yo son is running a fever of 104 at this moment and we are supposed to fly first thing tomorrow morning. I am struggling with the ethical and financial quandary as to what to do. I will share what I have found so far. The airline will allow me to change the fare if we pay the difference - which is not too bad in this case. They have no guideline stating he can't fly with fever or other symptoms. The Dr.'s office says he should be fever free for 24 hours before being out in public. (We are under that now.) They also pointed out that when already ill it is not only the other passengers to think about - some may be immune compromised - but also my child to think about. He is more likely to contract some other illness that someone else might have on the plane. We are leaning toward canceling at this time since the financial penalty is not too severe. I have to admit that I would be more inclined to mask him and take him on the flight if the financial penalty was more. We are on a tight budget & this trip is the first in 5 years to see a dear friend.

Fly Girl said...

This is an easy question to answer, because the answer is, at the same time, ethical, financially prudent, medically sound, and just plain practical.

Stay home. Cancel your plans. And let your poor little five year old recover.

It won't be any fun for him to travel when he's sick. He's going to be miserable while on the plane AND at your destination. You are exposing him to further medical risk, to say nothing of the inconsideration show to fellow passengers, and the people you are visiting at your destination.

Why risk it?

I know travel is expensive, and you've saved up for this for a long time. But isn't the health of your child worth more?

There are enough things that can go wrong when you travel, and I can't understand why you would knowingly throw obstacles in you path.

Work with the airlines to cancel or change you plans. Get a doctor's verification, if needed, to reduce or eliminate change/cancellation fees.

Try again when your little one is feeling better. I hope it's soon.

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