Air Carrier Liability For The Spread Of Communicable Disease

Author:Clyde & Co LLP
Profession:Clyde & Co

The issue

A passenger on-board an aircraft travelling from Hong Kong to London begins to exhibit worrying symptoms a short time into the flight: fever, sweating, frequent coughing, head and body aches, diarrhoea and nausea. Within a brief period several other passengers begin to exhibit the same symptoms. Cabin crew are strained and passengers are beginning to get worried.

What are an air carrier's responsibilities during a global health emergency; and to what liability could it be exposed?

The outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 served to place the fear of pandemic at the top of recent world headlines. Among the foremost concerns surrounding the outbreak was the possible spread of the virus through air travel.

However, Ebola is just one of many global public health issues demanding attention from the aviation industry; the continued monitoring of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and flu virus strains such as H1N1, vigilance to prevent the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis, and threatened use of biological terror agents, among other concerns, combine to make air travel and public health a pressing concern for the broader air transport industry.

Air carriers, specifically, are placed at the centre of these public health issues as a potential vector for the spread of communicable disease. International and national regulatory rules and protocols have been put in place for air carriers, along with strict internal air carrier policies; however, the possibility exists for air carrier liability in this area.

Current regulations

The World Health Organization leads the international effort in determining the level of risk posed by disease; and providing information and issuing regulations to manage spread of disease. National public health authorities implement those regulations and lead national response efforts. International and national aviation authorities work with health authorities to develop guidelines for the aviation industry. Airports and air carriers coordinate with all of the above to meet their obligations as a first line of defence against the spread of communicable disease posing a threat to global health.

World Health Organization (WHO)

In 2005, the WHO issued the second edition of the International Health Regulations (IHR) to regulate and coordinate the global management and control of the international spread of disease; the IHR went into effect in 2007 and establishes comprehensive rules to meet this goal. Among these rules is recognition of the importance points of entry, such as airports, play in controlling the spread of communicable disease. Part IV, Article 20 requires States to designate and certify airports according to strict guidelines based on prevention, detection, response and control of communicable disease. Further, Annex 5 allows for specific emergency measures to be put in place to control vector-borne diseases on aircraft.

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)

Article 14 of the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation (the Chicago Convention) requires States "to take effective measures to prevent the spread by means of air navigation of cholera, typhus (epidemic), smallpox, yellow fever, plague, and such other communicable disease as the Contracting States shall from time to time designate".

ICAO works closely with WHO and other international health and aviation bodies to address the spread of communicable disease in aviation. The IHR provide the framework by which ICAO has developed...

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