Airline policies, flight cancellation fees, and complacency among airline passengers and personnel are among the factors that encourage people to fly sick.
An online survey sponsored by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases found that two-thirds of Americans go about business as usual with the flu. Close to half of those surveyed (45 percent) admit they would board a plane with influenza symptoms to go on vacation; 40 percent of business travelers would fly with the flu. According to the World Health Organization, the onus of "the decision to travel" is on the traveler but travelers aren't always looking out for the person in the next seat.
"I think people are selfish. It is all about their schedule, their costs, and they forget their own misery or risks to those around them," says one anonymous fight attendant.
Here are a few other reasons why air passengers fly sick:
Airlines are loath to kick sick passengers off planes for financial reasons
While carriers have the right to deny boarding to a sick passenger, they rarely exercise that option. "There is little incentive for airline personnel to go the extra mile and deny boarding for a sick passenger as that would create an empty seat and lost revenue," says Alicia Jao, vice-president of travel media for nerdwallet.com.
The outward symptoms of communicable diseases aren't always apparent
Understandably, airline personnel often can't discern whether someone has symptoms of a common cold or of a more serious and contagious respiratory disorder—-such as pneumonia, influenza, or even chicken pox (which can look like acne). Even when gate employees or flight attendants do have suspicions, they may turn their heads because they can't be sure.
During a pandemic or public health crisis, there is usually a high state of vigilance, but attitudes towards flying sick generally become more lax afterwards. "We heard about numerous cases of feverish-looking people being told to travel another day during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009," says Rick Seaney, CEO of farecompare.com. When was the last time you saw a fellow passenger being asked to leave a plane for flying sick since then?
Overly restrictive airline policies encourage passengers to fly while sick
"With some airlines, it's the policies themselves that motivate people to fly when they're sick," says Andrew Schrage, co-founder of moneycrashers.com. "U.S. Airways and Americans Airlines offer no medical waivers to assist passengers who are too sick to fly. Delta Air Lines, on the other hand, treats the matter on an individual basis."
Even when they exist, waiver policies can be extremely restrictive. "For example, US Airways requires the passenger to be hospitalized the day of the flight. Other airlines typically require proof of hospitalization to have change fees waived," says Jao of nerdwallet.com. When children fall ill, these waivers aren't likely to apply to parents or siblings.
Exorbitant fees for flight cancellations encourage passengers to fly sick
Flight cancellation fees can be punishing. Moreover, given the scarcity of seats on some routes, a replacement flight may be expensive and hard to rebook.
"This encourages many people to fly despite being ill," says Schrage of moneycrashers.com. "Southwest Airlines doesn't charge these [cancellation] fees, but Delta, American and United all charge $150 per ticket to cancel or rebook," he adds.
Precautions travelers can take to protect themselves
Given all the perverse incentives for flying sick, what can a traveler do to protect him/herself?
- At least two weeks before you travel, make sure your vaccinations (e.g. flu, pneumonia) are up-to-date.
- Consider trip cancellation insurance but assess the cost and read the small print. "Trip cancellation will reimburse travelers up to 100% of trip costs if they are ill. Cancellation due to sickness is always a covered reason, as long as travelers provide documentation from a doctor which states they were unfit for travel," says Jessica Bell, a spokesperson for Squaremouth.com. "If a traveler is already ill and they know they will have to cancel their trip, it is too late to buy trip cancellation insurance," says Steve Dasseos, president of TripInsuranceStore.com. "It's like wanting to buy fire insurance when your house is on fire."
- If you think you may have been exposed to a bug that will render you too sick to fly, check out specific airline waiver policies before you select a carrier, or consider purchasing an unrestricted, totally refundable ticket (These may be unaffordable but you sometimes snag them using frequent flyer miles).
- Reconsider your decision to fly. If you know you have a highly contagious illness like pneumonia or the flu, be sensitive to the possible effects on other passengers who may be young, aged, or immunocompromised. Also, think about how ill and uncomfortable you may begin to feel during the flight.
- If you think the person next to you looks too ill to fly, ask the flight attendant to change your seat. When seats are available, airline personnel will usually try to honor your request. If no other seats are available and you're stuck next to someone who seems sick, limit conversation and try to face away from the individual.
Previously on Life Goes Strong, read Tips on How to Avoid Catching Colds on Planes