Delta’s announcement comes after months of back-and-forth between federal health officials and airlines over who should be responsible for collecting passenger information the Department of Health and Human Services says is critical for improving the effectiveness of contact-tracing programs. It could prompt other carriers to put similar programs in place.
“Contact tracing is a fundamental component of the nation’s public health response strategy for controlling the spread of communicable diseases of public health concern,” said Caitlin Shockey, a CDC spokeswoman. “The collection of contact information from air travelers by airlines, like Delta, will greatly improve the timeliness and completeness of information for COVID-19 public health follow-up and contact tracing, as needed.”
Delta’s announcement also underscores how the lack of federal mandates has forced airlines and airports to find their own ways to address concerns about the safety of flying during a pandemic. Airlines have made masks mandatory on flights and have banned hundreds of passengers who refuse to wear them. Airlines and airports also have put programs in place to test travelers for the coronavirus.
Delta spokeswoman Lisa Hanna said that rather than wait for government and the airline industry to come to an agreement, the company decided to create its own program.
Bill Lentsch, Delta’s chief customer experience officer, said in a statement that contact tracing adds another layer of assurance for customers.
“We want customers to feel safe when they return to travel, and this voluntary program is another way we can provide additional reassurance to customers and employees alike,” he said.
A spokesman for United Airlines said it may have an announcement in the coming days. Officials at American Airlines said they continue to work with the CDC on contact-tracing efforts.
In February, the Department of Health and Human Services published an interim final rule that required carriers to collect information from travelers on international flights to the United States and provide it to the CDC. Citing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, which has an incubation period of two to 14 days, health officials said the information would speed efforts to reach travelers if they were exposed to the virus.
Under the previous system, health officials said it could take as long as seven days for airlines to provide the information to the CDC.
“Contact tracing is effective at reducing cases of communicable disease at the early stages of a potential outbreak if the contacts are notified as soon after initial exposure as possible,” HHS said in justifying the need for the rule. “If an efficient contact system is not in place when the first ill passengers arrive, the benefits of the contact tracing are greatly diminished.”
Airlines pushed back, saying it would take a year or longer to set up such a system. They argued that the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department were in better positions to provide the contact information health officials sought.
Most of the airlines’ current systems would have to be reprogrammed to collect additional data, according to industry trade group Airlines for America. Airlines contend they have no way of verifying that the information they receive is accurate.
They did offer an alternative: an industry-funded app and website that would allow travelers to send information directly to the CDC.
However, no such app was launched. Instead, federal officials collected passenger contact data using paper forms. The information was then put into computers and sent to the CDC.
While the number of people who have flown while carrying the virus is unknown, the CDC said recently it had investigated 1,600 cases in which travelers could have infected others. While 11,000 people could potentially have been exposed, officials said incomplete contact-tracing information combined with the virus’s incubation period made it difficult to confirm instances in which people were infected on a flight.
Delta said that under its program, customer information will be securely transmitted to officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which will transmit it to the CDC. The new system will “dramatically decrease” the time it takes local health officials to notify customers, the company said.
When a confirmed case is identified on a flight, the CDC requests a passenger manifest from the airline. The goal is to identify travelers seated two seats around the infected person. The information is sent to local health departments, which contact passengers in their jurisdictions.
While providing contact information will be voluntary for those on international flights, it will be required for passengers in a pilot program Delta recently announced that allows people traveling between Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and Rome-Fiumicino International Airport to avoid quarantine. In this instance, travelers must agree to be tested four times: within 72 hours before their flight, at the airport, when they land in Rome and again before they return to the United States.
Travelers must pay for the test required before departure, while the pre-departure rapid test will be included in the ticket price. When they arrive in Italy, the rapid antigen test they are required to take at the airport will be free. The pilot program will begin Dec. 19.