Provincial health officer calls for greater health cooperation from airlines

B.C. provincial health officer says people need to feel comfortable changing or cancelling their travel plans if they don’t feel well

British Columbia’s provincial health officer says she needs better information from airlines to help stop the spread of the coronavirus and more flexible cancellation policies so people who cancel their flights when they’re not feeling well won’t be punished for their honesty.

“These are things that cause me great consternation,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry at a news conference Tuesday. “All the airlines need to have processes in place to screen out people, but we need to be honest about it. And part of that means if we are not feeling well, we need to have the ability to postpone or change our flights.”

Airlines in Canada have come under fire – and at least two lawsuits – for policies denying refunds to passengers whose flights were cancelled as a result of the pandemic. Westjet and Air Canada have, however, loosened cancellation policies to allow passengers to change their flights to a later date. Those policies apply to flights until the end of July.


Dr. Henry made the comments after reporting that four flights, two from the United States and two from Canada, landed last week at Vancouver International Airport with a case of COVID-19 on board. A federal database shows there have been 34 flights in Canada with infected people aboard since July 3.

“And it’s not just flights from the U.S., I will note,” said Dr. Henry. “There’s flights from other countries but there’s also internal flights and we’ve had people who were actually sick on the flight coming in from Toronto from other parts of Canada.”

In March, the B.C. Centre for Disease control stopped alerting individual passengers seated near infected people on flights, opting instead for publishing general notifications on its website. However, the Dr. Henry said the information provincial health authorities get from airlines is often not complete.

“One of the most challenging thing we do is trying to get flight manifests a couple of days later when we recognize somebody might be ill and the type of information that’s on those flight manifests is often not very helpful,” she said. The key, she said, is “to be able to more efficiently identify people that are within rows of somebody who develops.”

When it can’t identify where an infected person was sitting or who was nearby, the BCCDC recommends people on affected flights self-isolate and monitor themselves for COVID-19 symptoms for 14 days. Symptoms include cough, fever, chills, and a loss of smell or taste.

The International Air Transport Association – an umbrella group representing the world’s largest airlines – says the rate of transmission aboard aircraft is low, although more study is needed. In early June, IATA’s Medical Advisory Group found a handful of cases, most involving passengers transmitting the virus to flight crew.

Airlines and airports have stepped up their anti-pandemic measures, including temperature and symptom screening, limiting face-to-face contact, requiring masks, and more frequent and more thorough cleaning of aircraft and high touch surfaces.

Dr. Henry adds to that list frequent hand washing and, most important of all, staying home when a person feels ill.

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Categories: Safety

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