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28 October 2014

Why Ebola air travel restrictions keep changing

In recent days, Ebola-related restrictions on travel keep changing, sometimes in ways that can be confusing to airline passengers and to the general public. There are two basic reasons why this is happening, the first being the changing nature of the Ebola outbreak, and the second because there are several kinds of independent decision makers when it comes to Ebola travel policies.

The changing face of Ebola
As of late October 2014, Ebola remains a serious epidemic, and according to the CDC, over 10,000 people have been infected with roughly 5,000 dead. The largest number of cases are in three west African countries, Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. There have been at least five other countries with one or more Ebola cases, and for two these countries, the US and Nigeria, the virus was carried there by an airline passenger.

US response
The response of US authorities has been varied, with the key responses including the following:

  • Federal requirements that air travelers who fly directly from Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone enter the US in to one of five airports, each of which has a screening program to evaluate travelers from those countries.
  • Additional requirements from several states (including states containing at least four of the five entry airports) that include some form of quarantine for some or all travelers who have been exposed to Ebola.
  • US military authorities have either quarantine or evaluation programs for military personnel who have provided support in efforts to address Ebola in west Africa.

Why is the US concerned?
Although there have only been a handful of Ebola cases in the US, there has been a very high level of interest and concern by the public and the US government in keeping Ebola from becoming a serious problem. This concern is likely based on the reality that there is a significant number of people who travel between the US and those countries most affected by Ebola, including thousands of medical professionals and military members who are directly involved with fighting the epidemic in west Afria; and citizens, residents, and visitors from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.

Who makes Ebola decisions in the US
In the US, various units of government are able to make decisions independently of one another, and that can lead to multiple, overlapping, and sometimes contradictory policies. In the case of Ebola, a few of the independent decision makers include the following:

  • The federal government can enforce policies involving things like air transportation, travel between US states, and border security.
  • Individual states, including cities, counties, and smaller government units within the states, can enforce restrictions or quarantines on air travelers that go beyond federal requirements.
  • Military organizations, in addition to having access to its own air transportation system, can impose restrictions on members of the armed forces that may go far beyond those imposed by either the states or by federal governments.

In addition to units of government, individual travelers can make decisions that can easily circumvent the restrictions of the federal or state governments, largely because federal and state governments often have to rely on information provided by air travelers and have no way to independently verify a traveler's claims about their travel history.

So far, no individual air traveler has has caused someone in the US to contract Ebola due to deliberately avoiding the current screening and restriction programs or because of a failure of one of those programs. Should that happen, or should there be a sharp increase in the number of Ebola cases in the US, it is very likely that one or more government organizations may change air transportation rules in significant and unpredictable ways.

Background information on air travel bans
Air travel bans to control epidemics
Background information on Ebola
Background information on SARS

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