U.S. airlines have said little publicly about political pressure to close the country's borders to travelers from Ebola-ravaged countries in West Africa, but in private they have briefed government officials about the challenges to implementing a ban, industry sources told Reuters.
Several dozen U.S. lawmakers have called for a ban on visitors from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, where the world's worst Ebola outbreak on record has killed almost 5,000 people. Since late September, a Liberian man who traveled by airline to Texas and an American doctor who lives in New York and flew home after treating Ebola patients in Guinea, have been diagnosed with the virus after their arrival. The Liberian died on October 8 and the doctor is hospitalized in a specialized ward.
The Airlines for America trade group has said publicly that it supports the White House's view that a ban would make it more difficult to curb the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Yet individual airlines have raised additional concerns that their booking agents and software are not equipped to flag travelers under a ban. They also worry that a blanket restriction for West African countries might alarm the public and curtail travel on a wider scale.
“Public hysteria is something we certainly don't want to see,” said an executive at a major U.S. carrier.
Airlines for America has briefed people involved with travel issues on Capitol Hill in Washington about its position, according to a source present for the talks. Discussions have not risen to the level of a lobbying campaign because the Obama administration has so far rejected a ban and Congress is out of session, according to the airline executive.
“Given the state of the news cycle, it's a practical approach,” said airline industry consultant Robert Mann. “They just simply don't want to raise the issue to headline status anymore ... It may not turn out to be the winning strategy, but at this point it is for them the best approach.”
American Airlines suffered a single-day drop in bookings after Congress stirred the public's concern during a hearing on Ebola earlier this month, although reservations quickly rebounded. American, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines have said Ebola has not impacted consumer demand overall.
Airline stocks plummeted in the days following the Liberian's diagnosis in Dallas on September 30, with American's shares falling nearly 20 percent. Yet the stocks have rebounded and American is up more than 13 percent compared with Sept. 30 after airlines offered largely positive guidance for the current quarter.
Several countries, including Jamaica and Australia, have imposed travel restrictions on visitors from the three nations most affected by the disease. The U.S. government requires all travelers from these three countries to enter through five major airports, where they are checked for fever and asked questions to determine their risk of exposure.
The travelers will be monitored by local health officials for 21 days, the maximum window in which an Ebola infection would materialize. Some U.S. states, including New York and New Jersey, are quarantining high-risk passengers.
Airline officials note that even under a travel ban, they may not be able to determine where a passenger set out from, as there are no direct flights from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone. Booking systems cannot necessarily catch people who reserve their connecting flight to the United States on a separate ticket from their flight out of West Africa.
“If there's a broken itinerary ... we wouldn't be aware of where the customer is coming from,” said a source at another U.S. airline.
In such cases, the airline would bear the cost of flying the banned passenger out of the country if they were stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the source said.
Airlines regularly meet with government officials in the areas they fly to, and they frequently discuss Ebola planning during conference calls with CBP and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the sources. A travel ban has not been discussed at length on the calls because it does not seem imminent.
“We're pretty confident,” the second airline source said, “but on the same hand, things are changing daily.”