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Airlines balk at epidemic safeguards

Concerned about bird flu, federal health officials want airlines to collect personal information about domestic and international passengers to help track a potential epidemic.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Concerned about bird flu, federal health officials want airlines to collect personal information about domestic and international passengers to help track a potential epidemic.

Financially strapped airlines say creating such a database would impose staggering new costs.

"What we're asking for is the authority to collect the information in the context of modern travel on airlines," Dr. Marty Cetron, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's director of global migration and quarantine, said Tuesday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

"There's just a number of conditions where acting quickly with electronic access to passenger information is going to make a lot of difference," Cetron said.

The CDC wants to be able to easily find, notify and recommend treatment to airline passengers who have been exposed to bird flu as well as such diseases as plague, dengue fever or SARS — even if the travelers' symptoms don't appear while they're traveling.

Health officials are especially concerned about a flu pandemic. Though bird flu hasn't yet spread from human to human, they fear it could mutate into a strain that does.

The CDC plan calls for airlines to ask passengers their full name and address, emergency contact numbers and detailed flight information.

Airlines would have to keep the data for 60 days and, if asked, transmit it to the CDC within 12 hours.

The Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines, said the plan "represents an unwarranted and insupportable burden on an industry sector that can ill afford it."

ATA lawyer Katherine Andrus said in an interview that the CDC plan wouldn’t work because of cost, technological difficulty and the time needed to fill out the forms.

“We don’t think that, as proposed, this is a workable approach,” Andrus said.

Airlines worked with the government to locate passengers exposed to SARS, which quickly swept the globe after emerging in rural China in the spring of 2003.

Lessons from SARS
Tracking people in the U.S. who were exposed to SARS turned out to be a challenge. The CDC had to gather passenger names by hand from Customs declarations and flight manifests express-mailed by the airlines.

"More than half the time, using the address or phone we had, we couldn't find the individual," Cetron said.

The new CDC plan, eight years in the making, is an effort to update antiquated rules first written when people traveled internationally by ship, Cetron said. It also creates a system of due process for people who are quarantined and makes clear the procedures and jurisdiction over people carrying contagious, deadly diseases.

The CDC is open to other airline proposals for sharing passenger information because it doesn't want to drive them out of business, Cetron said.

Another government agency, the Transportation Security Administration, has struggled for years to compel airlines to electronically transmit information about airline passengers within the United States so that the government can check their names against watch lists.

Concerns about privacy and cost — airlines say it is in the billions of dollars — are among the factors that have stymied the TSA.

International passengers already tracked
On international flights to the U.S., airlines already transmit passenger information to the Homeland Security Department, which then checks it against terrorist watch lists.

Homeland Security has agreed to share that information with the CDC in order to track passengers who've been exposed to communicable diseases.

Civil libertarians say that agreement violates a deal with the European Union that would prevent the Homeland Security Department from sharing passenger information.

Barry Steinhardt, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, said the U.S. government blithely ignored its agreement with the European Union that it wouldn't share passenger records.

He also doesn't think the CDC plan will work.

"This is probably physically impossible," Steinhardt said.

Cetron said the agreement between CDC and Homeland Security states that the information sharing must conform to the agreement between Homeland Security and the European Union.