Traveling on commercial aircraft is likely much safer than many of our other daily activities in public.  But in spite of many anti-COVID precautions like HEPA air filters that remove 99.9% of particles the size of the virus, cabin cleaning after every flight, requiring the use of masks, etc., flying still poses limited risks because you never know who you are sitting next to.  One simple procedure can reduce those risks.

People sometimes fly when they don’t realize they are infected.  Some fly even though they realize they have the disease.  A man and wife flew United Airlines Flight 591 from Orlando, FL to Los Angeles, CA on December 14 even though they knew he had symptoms of COVID-19.  He suffered a medical emergency enroute that forced the flight to divert to New Orleans.  Unfortunately, the man died shortly after being rushed to a hospital.  The passenger had filled out a required checklist before flying affirming that he had not tested positive for coronavirus and did not have symptoms. 

There has been at least one other similar situation.  On July 24, a woman on a Spirit Airlines flight from Las Vegas, NV to Dallas, TX had difficulty breathing.  She was given oxygen, and the flight diverted to Albuquerque, NM.  She passed on the jet bridge in Albuquerque.  In this case, the death was not attributed to COVID-19 until October.

The article about the United flight on December 14 that appeared in today’s Washington Post states that some social media users who said they were on the flight reported that the man’s wife admitted he had symptoms of the virus, including loss of taste and smell.  According to one passenger, a nurse who was trying to revive the man asked his traveling companion if he’d had symptoms of coronavirus and the woman said yes.

After the flight landed in New Orleans and the sick passenger was removed, United gave passengers the option to take a later flight or continue on with their travel plans because it thought the emergency was due to a cardiac arrest.  All passengers elected to continue on the same plane to Los Angeles.  In spite of the wife’s statements, there was no cleaning before the flight continued.  United relied on a belief that the issue was a cardiac arrest.  Of course, cardiac arrest can be caused by the effects of COVID-19.

The crew of four flight attendants is quarantining for 14 days according to union guidelines.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has the flight manifest.  It is not clear what steps the CDC will take to notify passengers.

This One Simple Step Makes Flying Safer

Many airports in China have for years used equipment to register the body temperature of travelers as they pass through an airport. It is very simple and easy. Passengers just walk past or through a thermal imaging device.

I haven’t flown sine March, but as far as I know Hawaii is the only place in the U.S. that uses thermal imaging at airports. In August, NEC Corporation, NEC Corporation of America and the Hawaii Department of Transportation Airports Division announced that thermal temperature screening equipment is being used to help detect passengers with a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) and above.


This equipment is being used only at the gates currently in use to welcome arriving trans-Pacific flights at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL), Kahului Airport (OGG), Lihue Airport (LIH), Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA) and Hilo International Airport (ITO) but is scheduled to expand to all gates.

 An alert on the monitor appears if someone is detected to have a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher. The passenger is then pulled aside for further evaluation. If deemed necessary, the passenger is offered a COVID-19 test and the person’s information is collected to provide to the Hawaii Department of Health for contact tracing.

Final Thoughts

The death of passengers onboard commercial airliners from COVID-19 symptoms highlights the need for better health screening in airports. Hawaii’s approach seems very reasonable. Thermal scanning by hand-held or thermal imaging devices is an easy and relatively inexpensive way to increase the safety of air travel during and after the pandemic. Still, there will always be risks of disease transmission when many strangers are crowded together for extended periods.