CDC may lack contact information for some airline passengers possibly exposed to coronavirus

By Sam Mintz, Brianna Gurciullo and Brianna Gurciullo

The CDC may have trouble tracing some U.S. airline passengers who shared a flight with someone infected with coronavirus, a situation that could have been avoided had the federal government created a plan for sharing passenger data during an emergency like a disease outbreak — and now the agency and airlines are squabbling about who's at fault and how to fix the problem.

Both the Trump and Obama administrations failed to create a national aviation preparedness plan that would, among other things, address interagency coordination and information-sharing during an outbreak, despite a 2015 report from a government watchdog agency highlighting its necessity, House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) noted at a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday. Questions about the lack of such a plan are also expected to surface at a Senate hearing on aviation and the coronavirus scheduled for Wednesday.

“That hasn’t happened through two administrations,” DeFazio said. “Now it’s a little late. We have CDC trying to deal directly with the airlines to try and get passenger information. There’s an ongoing conflict over that.”

“Policy should be developed from knowledgeable people at FAA or DOT so we can begin to better track passengers,” DeFazio added. But he noted later that he expected "they ought to able to figure this out."

As first reported by The Washington Post, the CDC is increasingly concerned about getting the information it needs for coronavirus contact tracing, amid incomplete information provided by airlines and booking agents with a lag of as much as two weeks.

The CDC has said it needs the name, date of birth, address, phone number and email address for passengers on certain flights, but is only getting some of that information from airlines.

It’s been clear for weeks that there are major gaps in what is being provided. Only 56 percent of all passengers have an email address connected to their Passenger Name Record — the record created in a computer reservation system when a ticket is booked — an airline industry group said in a Feb. 13 letter, citing data from Customs and Border Protection. Only 74 percent of passengers have a phone number listed in their PNR.

Airlines argue that collecting and disseminating passenger information should be the government's role. Further, they say it would take almost a year to process all the data required in part because of the lack of information collected by third-party booking sites that account for close to half of all U.S. ticket sales.

"Those folks send us the bare minimum of information,” said Sharon Pinkerton, a senior vice president at U.S. airline lobby group Airlines for America. “They send us your name, your sex, and your birthdate. That’s what’s required for Secure Flight," a TSA security program.

“When airlines are collecting information directly, if they have an email and phone number, they are happy to provide it to the CDC,” Joe Leader, the CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, said at the House hearing on Tuesday. “In instances where historically Expedia and other online travel agencies have held back this information — I think you’re going to see a wall break down, because if the CDC requests it, I believe that the [online travel agency] behind the reservation will offer it to the airline, which historically they have not.”

The Travel Technology Association, which represents third-party sellers like online travel agents, didn't deny that they may have information the CDC needs that the airlines don't. In an interview, the group answered by throwing it back to the airlines, saying only they know whether a traveler actually got on board a plane.

Those contact information data points are "something that they can collect from the passenger at check-in or at the gate," said TTA President Steve Shur. "We just think that's the only practical solution here — is to do it in that way, at that time."

Representatives of the airline industry met with officials from the CDC, Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Aviation Administration and others on Monday to try to hash out the issue.

“We at least had the ability to have a conversation with CDC to explain the way that they’re trying to accomplish contact tracing is going to take 12 months or more to accomplish,” Pinkerton said.

Further, Pinkerton said she didn’t agree with the notion that DOT has failed to prepare for outbreaks.

“You have to have one agency that is the agency of authority with respect to the medical issues. In terms of transmissibility, mortality, in terms of the best prevention and mitigation, that’s not DOT’s expertise. That’s CDC’s expertise,” Pinkerton said. “So I think it is clearly the CDC’s responsibility to have plans in place."

That echoes the position DOT took in the 2015 report, where the agency argued that since it does not have public health expertise in-house, spearheading a national aviation preparedness plan should fall to another agency that does. However, in its recommendations, the report noted that while public health expertise is necessary, "DOT has primary responsibility in overseeing the aviation sector," including liaising with its international partners, and as such is "in the best position to work with its relevant stakeholders" to create one.

A DOT spokesperson said the agency "plays a supporting role" and has been coordinating daily with aviation stakeholders, foreign counterparts and lead federal agencies."

The airline lobby has solicited a proposal from the private sector to create a website where five data elements CDC needs can be collected, which Pinkerton said would cost about $1 million.

Airlines had requested Congress require HHS to create an online portal to send passenger information to the CDC, but that provision is not in the emergency coronavirus package which is moving toward a Wednesday vote on Capitol Hill, according to a person familiar with negotiations.

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.

Sheldon Jacobson, a computer scientist who researches airport screening methods and who helped develop TSA’s PreCheck, said there was greater likelihood of people spreading the virus at airport checkpoints rather than on-board planes. The checkpoints bring many more people in contact with each other and also exposes them to potentially contaminated surfaces such as bag bins and conveyor belts on scanning equipment, said Jacobson, who is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske said Tuesday that TSA screeners were taking precautions to reduce potential exposure to the coronavirus, including wearing surgical masks, using gloves and changing them frequently and also using hand sanitizer.

However, the challenge will be making sure those practices are consistent throughout U.S. airports, Jacobson said.

Sarah Ferris, Caitlin Emma and Stephanie Beasley contributed to this report.