Dallas: Travel agents say customers are asking whether it's safe to fly, and what steps they should take to guard against Ebola.
The virus has killed more than 4,500 in West Africa since the current outbreak began several months ago. Several people who contracted the disease there have been treated in the United States, but only three cases have been diagnosed in the U.S., all in Dallas.
Two of those victims flew on commercial flights shortly before falling ill. To put that in perspective, on an average day, about 2 million people fly on domestic and international flights operated by U.S. airlines.
Still, Ebola fear increased when officials disclosed that a nurse tested positive for the virus just over 24 hours after getting off a Frontier Airlines plane from Cleveland to Dallas-Fort Worth. Frontier has grounded the plane and notified hundreds of passengers on seven flights involving the same jet.
Frontier President Barry Biffle emailed employees Friday to tell them the nurse may have been at a more advanced stage of the illness than previously thought. He said the CDC has assured the Denver-based airline that crewmembers on the flights she took are at a very low risk of exposure.
The airline put the pilots and flight attendants on leave for 21 days, which health experts consider the outer limit of how long it would take someone exposed to Ebola to become sick. Biffle said passengers on the flights have also been notified.
Tim Husted, a traveler-services executive for Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a huge agency with offices around the world, said that fewer than 1 percent of the company's leisure travelers have changed a booking because of Ebola. There is even less of a reaction among business travelers, he said, although a few have requested routes that avoid Dallas.
Maryann Cook, a travel agent in New York, said that a Florida doctor who booked a $197,000 family safari trip to South Africa for 30 people next year wants to rebook it for 2016, even if it means losing a $60,000 deposit.
“He didn't feel a real urgency because South Africa is so far away from the problem spot,” Cook said, “but he got a lot of stress from his children and his children's children.” She said most of her other customers are still booking and still traveling.
Blake Fleetwood, another New York travel agent, said that a client who booked travel to India is worried about a stopover in London, where there could be a greater chance of exposure to travelers from West Africa.
“We're hearing from everyone. Even people flying domestically are very nervous,” Fleetwood said. He reassures them that flying is safer than other forms of travel. But he understands—and shares—their anxiety.
“I wouldn't fly on Frontier Airlines,” Fleetwood said. “I know that's a crazy thing to say, but I just wouldn't want my mind to be bothered. I would take another airline.”
Calls about travel insurance are also rising. Some people who bought insurance and now want to cancel their trip because of anxiety are finding out that the insurance won't help, said Megan Singh, marketing manager for SquareMouth.com, a travel-insurance-comparison website.
“That really is canceling out of fear, and it's not covered by most standard policies,” she said.
Singh said consumers can buy a policy that lets them cancel for any reason, but it will cost 40 to 50 percent more than standard policies that run about 6 to 11 percent of the trip's cost.
Some notes about Ebola and travel:
• The U.S. government cautions against nonessential travel to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The Obama administration has resisted Republican calls for a ban on travel from those countries.
• Travelers leaving those three countries are screened at the airport for fever, a symptom of the disease. U.S. officials say about 150 passengers a day from one of those countries enters the United States. They are screened again if they enter at one of five big international airports.
• Health experts and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the risk of getting Ebola in the U.S. is extremely low and can happen only by direct contact with vomit, diarrhea or other bodily fluids of an infected and sick person. Dr. Robert Murphy, director of the Center for Global Health at Northwestern University's medical school, said there is only a minuscule chance of catching Ebola on an airplane in the U.S. because the virus is not airborne. His recommendation for travelers? Use hand sanitizer—to protect against the flu virus, which is airborne and much more common.
• Airlines say they clean their planes every night according to CDC recommendations, including the use of heavy-duty cleansers on armrests, tray tables and in lavatories.