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.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/HEALTH/04/30/gendreau.swine.flu/art.dr.mark.gendreau.jpg caption="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.