Passenger Flew Back From China To An Unapproved Airport, Skipping Over Extra Screening

It surprised me to learn that airlines are asking passengers whether they’ve been to China or – starting Monday – Iran within the previous two weeks and relying on honest answers in order to evaluate the passenger’s fitness for travel. Airlines have to get the federal government’s affirmative permission for each passenger to fly, but the federal government isn’t telling them who to exclude from boarding impermissible flights based on recent travel history.

It turns out as well that the quarantine system that’s set up for arriving passengers from China has a loophole: not starting the air portion of the trip on the mainland and transiting an airport with U.S. immigration pre-clearance.

Passengers entering the U.S. from China (and shortly also Iran) are only permitted to use one of 11 airports in order to receive heightened screening: New York JFK; Chicago O’Hare; San Francisco; Seattle; Honolulu; LAX; Atlanta; Washington Dulles; Newark; Dallas Fort-Worth; and Detroit. But what if a passenger transits somewhere enroute to the U.S.?

One passenger’s story illustrates a flaw in this system. He returned home to Kentucky skipping these airports entirely.

  • He went from China to Hong Kong and was then scheduled to fly Hong Kong – Toronto – Detroit – Cincinnati. His point of entry into the U.S. was scheduled to be the approved Detroit airport.

  • His Toronto – Detroit flight was cancelled. Air Canada rebooked him direct to Cincinnati.

Concerned that he wasn’t following the rules, he flagged this to Air Canada, but was told he had nothing to worry about. (Update: And Air Canada was correct.)

“They said you’re already cleared,” Collins said, recalling a conversation with Air Canada. “The US government has already cleared you to be here. We’re just going to send you to Cincinnati.”

According to Collins, the agent further explained that since he had gone through immigration, he was already in a “US-controlled” area.

He had no issue at preclearance since the flight portion of his itinerary didn’t actually start on the mainland. The man promises he doesn’t have coronavirus, having “quarantined himself in his Chinese apartment for a month” going out for groceries once a week during which time “his temperature was taken by officials multiple times.” Of course he could have contracted the virus while on one of these trips, or on departure from China, and remained asymptomatic for some time.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Uh, Bob, the traveler was already cleared by US border agents to go to the US. He was, effectively, on US soil already. Air Canada would have had to get the US to allow the RCMP into the sterile area to escort him back into Canada. The preclearance process is the issue here, not Air Canada. Once this passenger passed preclearance, it really didn’t matter where he was going, he was mingling with passengers going to all sorts of airports in the US. If it turns out he was superspreader, then Covid 19 has now been seeded in probably at least a dozen cities in the US. It just goes to show the futility in trying to quarantine in free societies rather than preparing for when it inevitably spreads.

  2. You should worry about this if you think the system is sensible or likely to be effective. It is neither: with asymptomatic carriers spread over much of the world, the horse has already bolted.

  3. Does anyone think that had he flown Toronto-Detroit as planned (which would have meant pre-clearance in Toronto) that he would have been screened upon arrival in Detroit? Hard to imagine that would have actually happened.

  4. Yeah, basically zero chance he would have been screened coming off a flight in the domestic terminal in Detroit

  5. Hong Kong is not subject to the U.S. quarantine (vs Mainland China). And if he had travelled from the Mainland to HK he would have been quarantined in HK for 14 days anyway (per HK government directive).

  6. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that not just pre-clearance is the “flaw” in the system. The way I understand it to be set up, the requirement to enter via one of the 11 airports for “heightened screening” only applies to direct flights from China to the U.S. (I didn’t know it applied to HKG as well which this person was traveling from). Or maybe technically it applies to any U.S. citizen who has been to China within the past fourteen days, but I don’t see how it can be enforced if you travel from China to the U.S. via any third country, pre-clearance or not. No matter if you fly PEK-FRA-CLT or PEK-YYZ-PHL, you’re not clearing U.S. immigration at any of these 11 airports.

  7. In mid February DHS changed the requirement to arrive into one of the 11 airports if one is coming from a pre-clearance airport. Passengers can fly to any U.S. city once they are processed at the preclearance.

  8. There is no easy solution but until a vaccine is developed the gov’t should be insuring that there is an adequate supply of testing kits in all cities so that carriers can be quarantined, or at least told to stay home.
    Even this would assume that anyone with the symptoms would want to know that they were infected, and voluntarily follow the testing and quarantine guidelines.
    Otherwise I see no way of stopping the spread.

  9. “Simple. Fine Air Canada, or better yet, ban them from flying to the US”

    Very trump-like mentality…blame and punish someone else for his own incompetence.

    Useless to solve any problem but very effective politically with his ignorant, xenophobic, imbecile supporters.

  10. HEADLINE: Man Who Says Windmills Cause Cancer Reassures Nation On Coronavirus Response

  11. Everyone just travels so much these days. The spreading of the virus is inevitable. Just keep yourself healthy and your immune system up. So that if you do catch it you will be able to fight it.

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