I’m not an epidemiologist and I have no greater understanding about the spread of ebola than what I’ve read from others.
So I am limiting the scope of my commentary on the spread of the disease and travel. (Relatedly, I found this Wired piece from August on the extent to which disease spreads on planes interesting.)
One of the hot topics under discussion is the idea of an ebola travel ban, stopping anyone ‘from West Africa’ from entering the United States. I’ve seen lots of discussion of this in my Facebook feed, including a couple of links to a Whitehouse.gov petition with over 35,000 signatures.
Have the FAA ban all incoming and outgoing flights to ebola-stricken countries until the ebola outbreak is contained
While there are certainly capabilities to limit entry into the United States by certain persons, it strikes me that the whole idea is far more complicated than broadly understood or discussed.
- There’s no such thing, for instance, as a Monrovia – New York flight. There are very limited flights from West and Central Africa direct to the U.S. (these include the six times weekly United Lagos-Houston flight and the three times weekly Arik Air Lagos – New York JFK flight, Delta’s Dakar – New York JFK and Accra – JFK flights and South African’s Dakar – Washington Dulles flight). Most travel from the affected region would be via Europe..
- So we’re not just banning a certain set of flights, a policy would presumably be banning specific passengers enroute from Europe. And that’s harder.
You can stop people on entry into the U.S. But if they are infected with Ebola, they may have infected many others on the flights they took to the U.S. So the policy would keep them out, but not the people they infected.
You can stop people from boarding flights into the U.S. in the first place, but since it’s specific people on specific flights from Europe, this gets harder to do than it might seem at first blush.
The Department of Homeland Security generally knows the flight plans of each arriving passenger. They know everyone on an arriving aircraft, since airlines flying to the US have to provide their manifests in advance.
And DHS then cross-references against their PNR (reservation) database. So if passengers are traveling to the US on a single ticket, the US government knows where they have come from. It should be possible to decide that passengers on an itinerary originating in West Africa are ineligible for entry to the U.S, and thus should be denied boarding. And that passengers should not be permitted to purchase itineraries to the U.S. originating in West Africa going forward. (Existing tickets would have to be refunded.)
If a passenger, though, purchased a ticket say Monrovia – Brussels, and then a separate ticket Brussels to Washington DC, New York, or Chicago then the US government may not to know that the passenger originated in Liberia.
Another approach would be to bar passengers with West African passports from entering the U.S. But that could include people who haven’t been in Africa for months or longer. In other words, they would be banning Europe-originating passengers.
And it would not help keep out, say, Europeans who have been in West Africa.
It seems there are travel limitations that the US could put in place, but it is not obvious that the US could keep all of those people it intends to avoid entering into the US from doing so, and such a policy would likely keep out people who such an approach doesn’t intend to bar.
How would a West Africa travel ban even work?