Airline Liabilities - Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)


In 1996, a 32 year old woman died of a drug resistant strain of tuberculosis after flying with United Airlines from Chicago to Hawaii. The Centre for Disease Control traced all 249 passengers and found that six passengers, some as far as 13 rows behind the woman, had caught the pathogenic bacterium which causes tuberculosis. As a result of this incident several governments established guidelines to prevent the spread of communicable diseases including tracing passengers who have been exposed to the infection.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome ("SARS") is not the same as tuberculosis but there may be similarities in the way it is contracted and the steps that airlines need to take to try and ensure the safety of the travelling public. SARS has struck victims in thirty-one countries including China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and Canada. Reactions to the virus have had a devastating impact on the profitability of many airlines in Asia. The World Health Organisation (WHO) issued an Emergency Travel Advisory to passengers and airlines on 15th March, updated on 23 May, which indicated that while the risk of in-flight transmissions is very low, passengers and airlines should be aware of the main symptoms of SARS and set out recommended travel restrictions and in-flight precautions and measures. Some governments require passengers to complete health declarations on arrival and to submit to medical examination if they are suspected of suffering from SARS. Additionally, passengers have been requested to contact health authorities after investigations have revealed that fellow passengers have caught SARS. The operators of these flights have had to impound their crew on a temporary basis and take steps to disinfect their aircraft.


In general the principles of air carriers' liability for a passenger contracting SARS in an aircraft cabin are no different to principles relating to the spread of other diseases such as tuberculosis or cholera.

Airlines must comply with international health regulations and the laws of the countries to which they operate services. If they ignore passengers that look unwell, they may be exposed to penalties.

WHO report 'symptomatic probable SARS cases on four flights have been associated with possible transmission on board'. The possible risk factors for the airlines could include (a) failing to deny at check-in boarding to a passenger who has SARS symptoms or to take any precautionary...

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