We've all been in this situation: We're sitting in an airplane and the person sitting next to us is sneezing like crazy and coughing up a lung. We secretly wish there was a way to get this person off the plane. Well, that secret thought is now a public health question. Should airlines be allowed to ban obviously sick passengers?
The issue came to the forefront last year when, amid the swine flu scare, Vice President Joe Biden said in a television interview that he wouldn't want his family flying "in a confined aircraft." Here's what he had to say:
Damage control by the White House got Biden out of hot water, but the issue remains relevant.
If the question is left to the sick passenger, the answer is likely to be a resounding "NO." According to polls by both the Consumer Travel Alliance and Trip Advisor, the majority of air travelers would rather fly while infected than pay flight change fees ranging from $100-250. That doesn't include the possible difference in the price of the flight. And if they are traveling with family, it makes it even more expensive.
Part of the problem is that there is no industry standard. “Generally, airlines will not ban passengers due to health issues,” according to airlines.org. “However, each airline has the authority to deny boarding to passengers who might pose a threat to…the overall safety of other passengers and crew members...The decision to deny boarding is made on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with well-established airline procedures consistent with Department of Transportation regulations.”
Mitra Mostoufi is an example. She claimed taking the wrong medication at the wrong time caused her to feel nauseous on a United Airlines flight out of Tampa last year. She requested an air sickness bag after returning from the bathroom, Instead, the crew insisted that she was sick and escorted her off the plane with her daughter. United issued a policy statement, “The crew does have the right to remove a passenger from a flight if the person is visibly ill.” The airline did nothing further to help. Eventually, United offered Mostoufi two $400 travel vouchers -- but only after news outlets broadcast the story.
The Centers for Disease Control has issued Travelers' Guidelines for airlines to follow. They include having flight attendants ask that visibly ill passengers wear surgical masks, moving them away from other passengers (impossible on crowded flights), even redirecting the airplane to the nearest airport for their removal and medical care. All cabin and crew members must recognize flu symptoms and follow subsequent procedures and protocols, including informing the CDC Quarantine Station at the arrival airport.
The guidelines, especially regarding face masks, are rarely followed. Some attendants fear an adversarial situation and potential lawsuits. Andrew Speaker, who triggered a 2007 international health crisis by flying between Europe and North America with a drug-resistant form of TB, brought suit against the CDC for invasion of privacy. The suit was later dismissed.
So what do you think, Should you be forced to sit next to someone who could make you sick, or should they be booted off the plane?