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May 1st, 2009
11:59 PM ET

Weekend Flu Watch: Help us, Delta Lady!

Michael Schulder
CNN Senior Executive Producer

It may be time to edit the script of the flight attendant whose brief finger wag is famous among Delta passengers. Her name is Katherine Lee. She looks like she was cast in Hollywood, but she’s a real Delta flight attendant. And her video instructions on how to use seat belts and emergency exits seem to captivate every cabin. She’s hard to ignore, easy to obey. And, therefore, she may be a powerful weapon to prevent the spread of H1N1 flu on airplanes. We’ll get to Ms. Lee shortly. But first …

Thank You, Mr. Vice President

It all started when Vice President Biden gave an “off message” remark that, to be fair, reflected what many were already thinking. He said he would not want his family flying on an airplane now, given the spread of the H1N1 flu. “When one person sneezes,” he noted “it goes all the way through the aircraft.” That set off a flurry of fact-checks here at CNN. AC 360’s Randi Kaye got some fascinating material from Dr. Mark Gendreau, who’s not just any doctor. In addition to being Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, he’s pretty obsessed with the study of how germs and viruses spread on airplanes.

A Droplet’s Range

It was reassuring to hear Dr. Gendreau tell us: “The Vice President got it wrong on this one. There’s no scientific evidence that there is widespread transmission of particles on aircraft.” When an infected person coughs, says Dr. Gendreau and others, the virus droplets only spread about three feet. It was also reassuring to hear him tell us that each section of a plane on a major airliner has its own filtration system, and the system’s are generally HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters which trap fine particles.

Dr. Mark Gendreau says swine flu is focusing attention on how to avoid getting a disease while traveling by air.
Dr. Mark Gendreau says swine flu is focusing attention on how to avoid getting a disease while traveling by air.

The system is not perfect. Dr. Gendreau also noted that the latest statistics from Congress’ investigative arm, the GAO, which found 85 percent of planes among the major airlines have excellent air filtration systems that help prevent viruses from spreading through a plane. The percentage among smaller commuter planes in that GAO survey was worse – about 50 percent. Those latest numbers are from 2004. So we can’t say with independent certainty whether the plane you get on this weekend has a good or bad air circulation system. We can only say chances seem to be good that the air circulation system on a major airline will not spread the virus from an infected passenger through the plane.

Meanwhile, 7 Rows Away …

Dr. Gendreau notes that, while it’s rare for viruses to spread through planes, it’s not unheard of. He describes a case in 2003 in which, as Randi Kaye reported, “about two dozen passengers became infected with the SARS virus after an Air China flight. Some were sitting at least 7 rows away from the infected passenger.” Dr. Gendreau told AC 360’s Kaye that faulty ventilation was likely to blame.

So, to some degree, whether an infected passenger can pass the H1N1 virus to you is a bit of a crap shoot. If the viral cougher is sitting more than a couple rows away from you, and the air filtration system is in good working order, and you’re careful to wash your hands or use an alcohol based sanitizer, and you keep your hands away from your nose and mouth, it’s highly unlikely you’d pick up H1N1 on a plane – especially given the relatively low number of cases believed to be out there now. But if the guy across the aisle from you is infected and coughing up a storm, passes you on the way to the bathroom, or if you get on one of those planes that does not have a first rate air filtration system in working order, then the calculation changes.

Wag Your Finger At This ….

Which is why Dr. Gendreau concludes: “The only way to eliminate any risk of cross-infection in the aircraft cabin … is to prevent would-be passengers .. who are carrying transmissible infections from flying. This needs to come from education and promoting individual responsibility, since the systematic screening of passengers for contagious diseases is impractical.” So, despite the small risk of a virus spreading through a plane, which the airline industry says it is further minimizing by being on the lookout for ill passengers, the key, according to Dr. Gendreau, is promoting individual responsibility. In other words, sick passengers should stay home. That’s where Delta flight attendant Katherine Lee comes in.

If you’ve ever flown Delta chances are you’ll remember her videotaped safety briefing, including the now famous finger wag admonishing passengers not to smoke on any Delta flight. I’d like to suggest an important addition to her script and the script of every flight attendant who gives a safety briefing on any airline.

For Your Safety

My suggested new lines are underlined and are woven through excerpts of Ms. Lee’s actual safety script:

“…. Please take a moment to find the exits closest to you. And remember they may be behind you.”  And please, also, take a moment to look carefully at the passengers closest to you. If they have signs of the flu, such as a persistent cough, please alert a flight attendant. Remember, the most contagious passenger could be right in back of you. So look all around. Please do not use a thermometer on fellow passengers without their permission, even underarm thermometers. “Please remain seated with your seat belt securely fastened any time the seat belt sign is on. And even if the sign is off, you should keep your seatbelt fastened in case we experience unexpected rough air. … (finger wag) Smoking is not allowed on any Delta flight.”  Neither is any passenger who has flu symptoms, including body aches, fever, and a cough. If any of you have those symptoms, and you’ve been able to hide them from your fellow passengers, please come to the front of the plane right now (director’s note – use forefinger for come hither gesture) where you will receive a full refund and an escort to retrieve your checked bags. I SAID NOW!

I suggest that every airline, large and small, deliver the essence of this message, in a clear way. If any readers have a better suggestion, please submit a comment below. It’s a way to encourage that sense of personal responsibility that Dr. Gendreau tells us is critical to preventing the spread of viruses on planes.

Joe Biden was off message. He exaggerated the danger. But his fear is not entirely unfounded. Airlines, please consider revising your safety scripts for the impending pandemic. The message: sick fliers stay home. The Delta Lady can help make the message go viral.


Filed under: Airline Safety • Michael Schulder • Public Health
soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. nadine

    Joe Biden was right and had every right to say what he did. He was refering to HIS FAMILY. Instead of ripping into V.P. Biden, people should listen to what he said about if your sick and sneeze on the plane because I for one am fed up with people who know darn well they have a cold (if not the flu) and go to work anyways or get on a plane filled with passengers. They can't avoid everyone but they act like they'll be careful not to cough on anyone at work or on the bus, etc and yet once they go out in public with that virus in their systems, anything the touch, like a memo, a phone, the railing on the bus, the overhead baggage compartment, etc will now have their germs on it. There are people like me who catch a cold very easily and find it offensive when co-workers come to work sick anyways. They should be quarintened like TB people are. This is how a flu becomes a pandemic, too many selfish people thinking I'll be careful but going out in public anyways. Do we need to make laws for this too.

    May 3, 2009 at 2:58 pm |
  2. MarieAnne Sam - Alabang in the Philippines

    I agree -- additional info on how to detect H1N1 symptoms should also be embedded on the 'stewards' do's & don'ts' on a particular flight.

    This is very informative and with a gorgeous lady giving the instructions it will surely create compliance even to the most wayward passenger on board!

    May 2, 2009 at 12:36 pm |
  3. G Jay

    Sorry but I still agree with Joe B. Common sence would tell you that you can catch a virus even if the person who sneezes is at the front of Coach and you are at the back. Why? Ask yourself this. If you are in the back of coach, can you not smell food that's being prepared in the front?

    May 2, 2009 at 11:14 am |
  4. Miami Steve

    AC, this is great! You are "right on message" (pun intended!).

    May 2, 2009 at 10:00 am |
  5. Donna

    There's a BIG difference between a private company that will be liable for the health and safety of its passengers making a decision to not travel somewhere, and the Vice President of the United States of America telling the world that he would not want other people to travel in certain situations. Duh.

    May 2, 2009 at 1:05 am |
  6. Ed Brown

    I didn't know Dr. Gendreau or anyone else had all this information on H1N1. In once breath he sounds confident it can't spread more then 3 rows, but then contradicts himself and says it could happen at a larger area. All I really get from his statements is that plans have several air filters. One clear absence in the doctor’s comments is how long the H1N1 spit can live where it lands after someone sneezes.

    I contend the Government must know more about this virus than we are told and Joe Biden is right on message to bring honest government forward. Perhaps for a second it is not so much this strain, but the fear of the strain jumping again into some even more dangerous. It usually takes months to find an antiviral.

    It is too late to close down the border. And while we do stress tests on our banks; it appears we found our governments plan to stop a virus even more deadly the greater fear "bird flu" also unstoppable. As for the person next to you on the plan – remember they can be a host even without showing signs of symptoms.

    So lets watch our senior political leaders get out and press the flesh and if they do; I say fear not because they don’t and they know more than us.

    May 2, 2009 at 1:04 am |
  7. DeltaJohn

    As a Platinum Medallion frequent flier on Delta, I am definately one of Katharine Lee's biggest fans, I just love her! She has always made me smile watching her wag that finger at me. If I ever die from a horrible case of swine flu, her face and those penetrating blue eyes will be the last thing I think of!

    May 2, 2009 at 12:58 am |
  8. Chad Nelson

    Considering that the regular old boring flu has killed 12,000 people in America this year, while the swine flu has killed a handful, I would suggest changing the message to:

    "Also, for your safety, please stop listening to CNN and all other major news outlets who are hyping up this bunk threat for no apparent reason due to the fact that, your stress level could have an adverse reaction on your heart and pose a far greater risk than swine flu ever will."

    Seriously, Swine Flu is a joke.

    May 2, 2009 at 12:45 am |
  9. Fatima

    I don't agree with the doctor. I got sick 60% of time after an air travel even though the person next to me was not sick. It all depends how easily one gets sick. Dr. Gendreau does not fool me. hen there is an air-spread disease around, better to avoid air travel or any close encounters with strangers.

    May 2, 2009 at 12:42 am |
  10. Day C

    If everyone takes responsibility, that works...but if one passenger doesn't, or if the airline refuses to refund the money, or one person says "my needs are more important" or, basically if we ignore Spock (the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one) and go about our selfish way, then we will get on that plane with the flu. So... think about how many peole actually pay attention to the flight attendants. I'm guessing that the number would be small no matter how vital the message. IMHO.

    May 2, 2009 at 12:42 am |
  11. Victor

    Dan Quayle! Joe Biden should be the press secretary for the White House. Shameful both the VP and the gov. for causing near hysteria.

    May 2, 2009 at 12:36 am |
  12. love it

    I love it. Fellow passengers looking around and telling who has what. It's in line with See something, say something in NY. One step closer to Orwell and 1984! Damn... If I get sick, I will get on that plane no matter what. BUT, if I have to sneeze, I will cover my mouth...

    May 2, 2009 at 12:08 am |
  13. allie

    Loved the "director’s note" – use forefinger for come hither gesture.

    I really didn't know that a cough only travels 3 feet. Guess that's not too bad.

    May 2, 2009 at 12:07 am |
  14. Madhu Thangavelu

    Oh, I forgot to add......Can you imagine the finger wagging lady saying "now, if you have the flu, you can't use the toilet" !!!

    May 2, 2009 at 12:03 am |
  15. Madhu Thangavelu

    Things get more complicated quite easily.

    Yes, if the infected passenger walks past your aisle, and happens to sneeze, well, the 3-foot droplet rule becomes useless.

    If the infected passenger is walking between sections with different filtration units,again, the virus thwarts the system. All this is rudimentary kindergarten logic, it seems to me.

    I also thought that most filtration systems could not trap viral microbes as they are so small and pass through them easily.

    Enter reality.
    In the real world, in practice, once the infected passenger walks through the cabin to use the toilet to clear his nose and sneeze and clean up in there, I suspect that that small volume toilet immediately is coated from top to bottom with viral droplets, rendering it the most effective transmission agent in the entire fuselage.

    So, once again, best not to get on a plane...if the passenger is presenting flu or other symptoms.

    May 1, 2009 at 11:57 pm |
  16. Diane B

    I am not looking forward to my flight next week, 45 minutes from one SW city to another. Open seating means I have 1/3 odds of having a middle seat, no room to duck and cover.
    The airlines "no refunds" policy is not flexible at all in terms of any illness. Anyone with a 'sniffle' will want to travel regardless if it means they might lose their airline seat and have to rebook a flight in a few days at a very high price. Bottom line for most folks is the almighty dollar.
    Perhaps there needs to be MORE legislation mandating flexibility.
    I suppose if common sense were really common, we wouldn't be having most of these discussions.

    May 1, 2009 at 11:52 pm |
  17. Tony

    Vice President Joe Biden was not off message, as much as he was ignorant and vocal, something he has been for most of his political career. But hey he is our VP

    May 1, 2009 at 11:48 pm |
  18. Marie Brewer

    I think with what little information we have, no precaution is too much.

    May 1, 2009 at 11:30 pm |
  19. fuzzynormal

    So maybe I have the "swine flu" right now? I feel lousy, but certainly not on the verge of death's door.

    Apparently, the research says it's not any more or less dangerous than a typical strain, which kills thousands more people every year than the 175 or so that have succumbed to this particular variety.

    I'm young and healthy otherwise so I'm not particularly freaked out.

    What a load of media hysteria cr a p. Nothing else to get all hot and bothered about?

    May 1, 2009 at 11:28 pm |
  20. TexAnnie **

    I think this whole thing is SO overblown. This is just the news du jour... and the media has whipped everybody into a total frenzy. Some common sense should be the watchword– not "let's all panic like a bunch of lemmings".

    May 1, 2009 at 11:26 pm |
  21. T J

    Yes...

    May 1, 2009 at 11:19 pm |
  22. jfg

    People who are feeling ill would be more likely to change their flights and postpone their trips.l if airlines would allow sick people to change flights without having to pay a penalty. As long as their is a financial cost to being responsible, many people will chose to fly when sick rather than pay to wait.

    May 1, 2009 at 11:13 pm |
  23. LJohnsson

    That Delta lady has way too many cosmetic procedures going on. And the media should leave Mr. Biden alone. He said what many of us were already thinking. I don't want to be in any confined space with a sick person at anytime. Taking extra precautions now is not a bad thing.

    If I were Mr. Biden, I would only grant interviews to PBS because network and cable media seem to always want to pounce on everything he says.

    May 1, 2009 at 11:07 pm |
  24. Mimi

    The problem with leaving it up to "individual responsibility" is that those who have it are in the minority, in case you haven't noticed. There is such an attitude of "ME FIRST" and entitlement these days that it would be very difficult. Heck, most people cannot even follow simple rules, or not push ahead in a line – you think they would inconvenience themselves enough to remove themselves from a flight?

    May 1, 2009 at 11:01 pm |
  25. Jason R

    This both cheered me up and gave me a good slap in the face.

    May 1, 2009 at 10:58 pm |
  26. Susan Brown Chattanooga TN

    As you said, VP Biden was just verbalizing what a good number of folks are thinking but didn't have the chutzpah to say out loud. Yes, he should have researched it better before making the remark, but his intention was not to hurt the airline industry. Same way Ms California spoke her opinion (and had every right to do so) and got blasted for it. That's the problem now- people are too afraid to speak what's really their opinion.

    May 1, 2009 at 10:48 pm |
  27. Cindy Bowers

    The VP told us what HE would do regarding his own family...not what WE should do. Why is everyone getting all bent out of shape over a little honesty. He was actually telling folks the truth and my gawd, it's been turned into a scandal. I say, "Bravo, Joe!" They asked...you answered. Now we know what an honest answer will get you, don't we?

    May 1, 2009 at 10:21 pm |
  28. L. Carilo, H.R. CO

    To that, I can only say, "AMEN." ~ L. C.

    May 1, 2009 at 9:45 pm |
  29. Jim M

    So, like Biden were the majority of cruise ship companies in error in cancelling their cruise ship stops in Mexico?

    May 1, 2009 at 8:13 pm |
  30. Annie Kate

    The Southwest flight attendant who raps the safety message out would probably be able to produce a catchier message with this. That said, I don't think every person with flu will come forward – if they are on the plane they have already decided that there is something more important for them to do than lay around being sick at home. Some would even consider it an infringement on their rights (there is always one) to be told they couldn't fly while sick. We all need to be considerate of others and hope they will return the favor and be considerate of us in not spreading flu germs.

    May 1, 2009 at 7:34 pm |