As the A.F.F. finalizes its recommendations on bird flu precautions, United Airlines is already thinking about how to carry out its own safety policy should such a crisis strike down its planes.
“We’re already using automated locks that help us protect against birds,” the chief operating officer, Andrew Nocella, said in an interview. “That would start off the tools we might use” in a broader coordinated effort with other airports.
That includes the big-picture details of how all of the airlines would coordinate on stepping up surveillance of the passenger manifest for the potential that a bird flu outbreak may force cancellation of an airline’s flight. Those measures include having crews and aircraft come in early in case pilots must call for a trip with pre-arranged passenger numbers. United doesn’t necessarily have to do that until, say, if a blizzard blocks takeoff, but it does have the option and the ability to start taking it.
United isn’t the only one to have contingency plans in the event of a flu crisis, but in this climate, the start of flu season means the final details are under discussion, Nocella said. “We have been working on this for several weeks now.”
On-board flu shots may only be part of the solution, however.
While the number of flu cases last year was considerably lower than the previous year, the heightened scope of the flu season coupled with the attention around avian flu have resulted in myriad ideas about how to prevent the spread of avian flu viruses that have affected planes in the past. Not all of them are designed for just avian flu, but experts say many of them are very useful for tracking potential human flu strains.
Airports have been preparing for avian flu for decades, since outbreaks among birds have contributed to a range of deadly diseases. Many airports have policies that ban birds from entering the airport, as well as on planes and roads, which experts say helps.
Passengers don’t carry much of an incentive to help health agencies keep avian flu at bay if the flu season drags on, but there are often instances in which very sick people become so contagious that airport or emergency service workers may want to put the person in quarantine on the plane, instead of letting the person ventricles out in public.
Last year, as avian flu proved strong across the globe, United and other carriers began looking at how they would react if someone that had been infected by avian flu got on board. They decided on several options.
“When avian flu is a concern, we do do step-by-step things like intensive screening on the aircraft,” said Nocella. “When it’s not a concern, that might reduce our staff, or it might be done without us noticing.”
For most of the last two decades, flu kept spreading only sporadically. This year, it’s hit U.S. and globally: nationwide flu deaths are at their highest level in more than two decades, according to health officials, and much of the flu season continues to unfold. Avian flu is one major component of the mix.
In an interview, Marion Tackett, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, said there was a growing recognition among experts in her field that being on a plane often becomes part of the general sharing of materials, and that spreading food is a primary means of infection. The rapid dispersal of the influenza A viruses of the flu could mean that they could be spread in the air, as well as through humans, by setting off a loose chain of infection on aircraft. “If it’s an extremely contagious flu, then there is a risk of it on the plane,” she said.
United already does carefully examine who has traveled on a particular plane, Nocella said. Even if such a plane isn’t home bound for the U.S., it may be asked to provide the route of where that person went.
“We talk to people who flew the day before” to identify potential flu out of the global situation, Nocella said. “Every opportunity we have, from what we see to what’s happened, we look at.”