Noblesse oblige on a cattle car with wings?

Flying on a plane during a pandemic is unwise. If you’re flying to China, you may end up in a squalid hotel of uncertain hygiene and distinctly bad food for weeks if the guy two seats ahead of you has a slight fever. Of course, you may actually get infected by the guy two seats ahead of you with a slight fever.

A recent study (Wagner et al., 2009) used a well-known model to estimate the number of infections that could be expected to occur on a Boeing 747 if someone with H1N1 was a passenger. Long story short, the longer you’re on the plane, the greater risk that you would be infected. The authors also make the obvious point that the greater density of people in economy class may make infection there more likely than in First Class. In general, I prefer empirical studies to modeling studies such as this one, even though the assumptions seem reasonable and their “results” are what I would expect. For example, I would like to see a study that examined flight crews flying under different conditions to see if long flights and high passenger density resulted in more infections among flight attendants.

The authors of the current study went on to suggest policy based on their modeling study (Press release):

The researchers note that their results have important implications for understanding and predicting the global dissemination of H1N1, suggesting that air-travel restrictions may be useful in controlling influenza pandemics.

“Our results imply that one individual traveling by plane, by infecting other travelers on the same flight, could cause multiple simultaneous outbreaks in different geographic locations rather than causing only one outbreak,” Wagner said. “For that reason, quarantining passengers who travel in economy class on long-haul flights could potentially be an important control strategy this winter, but there is no point quarantining passengers in first class.”

Well, I agree about travel restrictions. We know they work from the recent experience in Gaza.

But quarantining economy passengers whilst letting First Class passengers take their Limos to their McMansions because a hypothetical model suggests that the risk of infection might be lower (but not zero) among the Forward Cabin Aristocrats?

Really, is it so hard to figure out what would happen if such a policy were actually implemented?


Wagner et al. (2009) Calculating the potential for within-flight transmission of influenza A (H1N1). BMC Medicine.


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