Friday, March 10, 2006

Holding pattern

Here's something that will surprise you: our airports aren't ready for bird flu. Not surprised? Gee, I'm surprised. But I guess people have gotten so cynical these days. I wonder why?

Anyway, USA Today reports that if a planeload of passengers was winging its way to us with a possible bird flu case aboard via the migratory businessman flyway, they'd have a hard time dealing with it. I guess no one in the airport industry or the towns where they are located has ever heard of this bird flu thing.

Not everywhere. One place alleged to have an aggressive plan is Honolulu. How aggressive?
"Do we have enough people? No," says Robert Tapia, chief of Honolulu's five-person quarantine station. "If we have 25 international flights a day here and get a surge of four or five airlines reporting illness, how do we get to them all?" (USA Today)
Sure sounds aggressive to me. Five people. In fairness, Honolulu has done more than any other city, making back-up arrangements with hospitals. But it wouldn't take many cases to overwhelm them. Early detection might buy -- if anything -- a couple of days. A couple of days headstart would be helpful. But it's no substitute for starting now. Why wait until the beast is ringing your doorbell before deciding you better hide under the bed?

CDC is still working on plans to notify destination airports when an inflight problem might exist. Airlines don't have passenger home addresses on their manifests so they can't do contact tracing. The best they could do would be to detain the plane load at the airport. But most city airports don't have plans to do even that:
Most major airports — Logan in Boston, Dulles outside Washington, Seattle's SeaTac, Miami and New York's JFK among them — haven't found facilities they can seal off to house a large number of potentially exposed passengers for several days.

Los Angeles International plans to use a vacant maintenance hangar, but it has no plumbing or other amenities to meet passenger needs. Honolulu is outfitting two remote gates and has found two nearby warehouses that could serve as quarantine sites.

If passengers on a jumbo jet needed to be quarantined, "I don't know what we would do except leave them on the plane while we scramble, and that's not a good answer," says Jeff Fitch, SeaTac's public safety director.
Since they are at a loss, let me make a modest suggestion. How about using the airport hotel? All the above-named facilities have several hotels and motels nearby and arrangements could be made ahead of time for this purpose. Let me say that again. Ahead of time. They could make plans AHEAD OF TIME.

Just a thought.