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Airline Policies: Sickening Results?

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Science  07 Feb 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6171, pp. 611
DOI: 10.1126/science.343.6171.611-a
CREDIT: MARCEL BRAENDLI/ISTOCKPHOTO

The impact of modern air travel on magnifying the spread of communicable diseases to epidemic levels has been well recognized [“Coming to an airport near you,” A. R. McLean, Perspectives, 13 December 2013, p. 1330; “The hidden geometry of complex, network-driven contagion phenomena,” D. Brockmann and D. Helbing, Research Article, 13 December 2013, p. 1337; (13)]. Although some infections may be in their incubation phase and not obvious at time of travel, many are identifiable before the affected individual boards the plane.

Presumably, responsible individuals with a communicable disease (such as influenza) would cancel public “appearances,” so as to avoid contributing to the spread of the disease they had contracted. However, these individuals face economic damage as a result, because airlines refuse to refund or fully credit such responsible behavior. By doing so, the airlines seem to be discouraging infected individuals from altering their travel plans.

By refusing to provide refunds to people with communicable diseases, are airlines responsible in part for the spread of influenza and other diseases? While the question of liability may be complex, the current policies clearly have public health implications.

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