How The Feds Keep Dangerously Sick Passengers Off Planes

You might have heard about the guy with tuberculosis who was allowed to board a US Airways flight over the weekend despite being on a “Do Not Board” list. It’s yet another failure for our complicated security system, but how did we get there? I decided to dig in to see how the system works, and you won’t be happy.

In June 2007, a Do Not Board program was created for passengers with communicable diseases. It starts off when local and state (or foreign) health officials find out about a person with a highly contagious disease. They then notify the Center for Disease Control (CDC) about that person. The CDC is the keeper of the list along with the Department of Homeland Security, but for once, DHS is willing to let those who know how to handle these things take the lead. The CDC really populates the list.

This list isn’t just for anyone with the flu. It’s only for very serious diseases that can cause major health problems. In fact, only 88 people have been put on the list since it started. To get on the list, there are three criteria that must be met.

  1. The person “likely is contagious with a communicable disease that would constitute a serious public health threat should the person be permitted to board a flight
  2. The person “is unaware of or likely to be nonadherent with public health recommendations, including treatment”
  3. The person “likely will attempt to board a commercial aircraft.”

In other words, if you get on this list, it’s a huge deal. So far all the cases have been people with pulmonary tuberculosis. What happens after the CDC decides that you’re worthy of being on the list? This handy diagram should help.

Do Not Board List

Right now, the TSA takes the list and then communicates it to the individual airlines to manage. As you can imagine, this means there’s a lot of lag time in the process and that’s a problem. Remember, to be on this list, the patient needs to be a threat to get on an airplane, so there is no time to lose. This past weekend, the CDC put this guy on the list on Friday. He flew on Saturday. With all those steps between being sick and the person getting on the plane, it’s not a surprise that the system didn’t react fast enough to keep him off the plane.

I reached out to the TSA to find out if the new SecureFlight program will handle this in the future. Theoretically, that would eliminate a step by taking the airlines out of the equation since the TSA would handle the matching process. I got in touch with a spokesperson at the TSA, but she didn’t know the answer and has yet to get back to me. So, it’s hard to know for sure if this process will improve or not.

Yet another failure of the system. *sigh*

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