Red Alert: This is No Drill

Airports might want to consider instituting a plan in case some infectious scenario drops out of the sky.

There’s a lot of discussion regarding airports and how potential aircraft infectious disease situations could mandate that airports maintain sufficient areas to quarantine passengers. Although the discussion appears to be more focused on the large U.S. international gateway airports, other airports might want to consider instituting a plan in case some infectious scenario drops out of the sky. Such a situation occurred at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport (ICT) in 2003, when SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) had the world on edge.

Located in Wichita, KS (just about dead center of the U.S.), Mid-Continent Airport handles some 1.5 million passengers annually with direct non-stop airline service to about a dozen major cities, all of which provide international connections. Due to its prime mid-US location, ICT has for years been a convenient diversion point for just about every type of aircraft. Most diversions typically involved circumstances related to aircraft mechanical problems and in-flight passenger medical emergencies.

Our experience, much to our surprise, was not a diverted flight but instead a daily scheduled domestic air carrier flight from a city within 500 miles of Wichita. Fortunately it was mid-week when management and other supervisory personnel were all on hand. That was very relevant because the cumulative experience of all the airport’s management team included aircraft accidents and crashes, fires and electrical outages, bomb threats and security incidents, picketing and parking overflow, crippling winter storms and natural disasters — you name it — but never a situation where infectious disease was the center of attention.

Warning Signs

On that day, the scheduled commercial CRJ captain discovered, halfway into the hour-long flight, three passengers of Asian descent exhibiting signs of the then-popular SARS. The captain subsequently radioed his corporate operations center to report the situation (consistent with the airline’s newly established procedures); then someone from airline operations called our airport’s safety division to advise us of the situation and need for attention. It was this phone call from the airline that officially handed the baton to the airport. We then knew it was going to be our event to manage, regardless of whether or not we were prepared.

Faced with the reality that we had an inbound aircraft containing a suspect infectious disease situation, the ICT team assembled to formulate the best plan of attack. We had experience handling serious life-threatening medical diversions; however, not being an international gateway airport, we had never had any reason to have specific procedures for infectious disease situations. We’d provided staff with appropriate training and procedures for handling of materials and patients related to the control of bloodborne pathogens, but it’s not the same animal — SARS could be transmitted via airborne particles.

With only minutes to make key decisions and formulate a plan, all kinds of questions popped up. Where is the best place to stage the aircraft? What to do with the other passengers once the suspect SARS individuals were isolated? What about the crew, the aircraft, the terminal? Should we allow any passengers to enter the building? If we do, should we shut the ventilation down to minimize the circulation of airborne particles? If we have no choice but to deplane in the terminal, do we have to drench the building in bleach and antibacterial spray to try and make the interior air safe once more once the passengers leave? What about all the other people in the building? How do we address the liability issues? Will we be forced to shut down the terminal for days and essentially put ourselves and airline tenants out of business?

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