Coronavirus: US government pressures airlines to hand over customer data to track passengers with disease

Government officials and major airlines have remained in deadlock over the conflict for four weeks

Louise Hall
Tuesday 03 March 2020 21:04
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The Trump administration is said to be pressuring airlines to hand over personal information of international passengers in an attempt to track the spread of the coronavirus, The Washington Post has reported.

Government officials want the data to be able to warn local authorities about who might have been exposed to the virus.

According to a number of people briefed on the situation who spoke to The Washington Post, the government is under significant pressure to receive the information.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are said to be asking for data, possibly including emails and phone numbers, to be collected and released when ordered, to be able to implement a system known as “contact tracing.”

This system enables health officials to contact passengers on flights who may have been exposed to a carrier of the coronavirus who tested positive after their journey.

“Contact tracing is effective at reducing cases of communicable disease at the early stages of a potential outbreak if the contacts are notified as soon after initial exposure as possible,” the CDC said, announcing its policy.

“If an efficient contact system is not in place when the first ill passengers arrive, the benefits of the contact tracing are greatly diminished.”

The airline industry is reported to have refused the request, saying the government should share information it already collects between different agencies and create their own system of obtaining the rest.

On 7 February, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a provisional rule which would require airlines to share certain passenger data with federal officials.

Airlines for America, a lobbying group that represents the airline industry told the Washington Post that collecting the data shouldn't be the airlines' job since the government already has much of it in existing databases.

They have also maintained that it will take them a long time to form a tracking system, possibly up to a year.

The situation has meant the two groups have reached an impasse, one that is said to have dragged on for four weeks.

However, the urgency to resolve the issue has intensified over the last few days as the spread of the virus has escalated in America.

With the number of cases increasing across America in recent days officials have stated the failure to resolve the issue could complicate the government's efforts to contain the outbreak's spread, The Washington Post said.

An anonymous official at the US Department of Health and Human Services who spoke to The Washinton Post said the passenger data issue has raised alarms at meetings of the US coronavirus task force.

Another official familiar with discussions told the newspaper that Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, also flagged the issue during internal administration meetings on Saturday.

The CDC also wants to pass on the data to states and counties so that authorities can check in on individuals who have taken flights from China.

Since HHS's rule was put into effect, airlines have turned over some information but it has been “incomplete,” according to a HHS official.

Need to reprogramme systems and inability to authenticate the accuracy of passenger data has been cited as reasons for the inability of airlines to submit to the request.

“We have some of the information, but we don't have all of it,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy at Airlines for America.

The airline industry has pushed Congress to intervene, with some lobbyists asking lawmakers to insert a provision into an emergency bill that would effectively absolve the airlines of having to track some of the data, the report said.

Airline executives are slated to meet Wednesday with Vice President Mike Pence, who has been put in charge of leading the coronavirus outbreak response by President Donald Trump.

The lobbyists are also scheduled to meet with US lawmakers, who hope to resolve the impasse quickly in the hopes of stemming the spread of the virus.

Additional reporting by The Washington Post

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