CDC plans flight e-tracking

Proposed CDC Rule on Control of Communicable Diseases

Battling a pandemic disease such as avian flu requires the ability to quickly track sick people and anyone they have contacted.

In response, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials have proposed new federal regulations to electronically track more than 600 million U.S. airline passengers a year traveling on more than 7 million flights through 67 hub airports.

The new regulations, which are available on the CDC's Web site and will be posted for a 60-day comment period in the Federal Register starting Nov. 30, would require airlines, travel agents and global reservations systems to collect personal information that exceeds the quantity of information currently collected by the Transportation Security Administration or the Homeland Security Department.

The regulations will require airlines to collect and maintain in an electronic database the following passenger information:

* First, last and middle names, in addition to suffixes.

* Current home address, including street, apartment number, city, state/province and ZIP code.

* Mobile, home or pager phone numbers.

* E-mail address.

* Passport or travel document, including the issuing country or organization.

* Traveling companions or group.

* Flight information, including date, airline, flight number and return flight details.

* Name, address and phone number of an emergency contact.

The same rules would also apply to passengers on international cruise lines and international ferry companies at U.S. ports, which the CDC estimated carry about 75 million passengers a year.

Dr. Marty Cetron, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, told a press briefing yesterday that the CDC’s push for the new regulations grew out of the agency’s frustrating manual data collection efforts during the SARS crisis in 2003.

Lack of detailed electronic passenger manifests “completely paralyzed our ability to notify people who were onboard together with suspect SARS cases during this epidemic in a timely way,” Cetron said.

The Government Accountability Office, in an April 2004 report, “Emerging Infectious Diseases,” detailed the CDC’s struggle in collecting passenger manifest data during the SARS crisis and recommended that the Department of Health and Human Services’ secretary take steps “to obtain passenger information in a timely manner, including, if necessary, the promulgation of specific regulations.”

In its proposed rule, which has eight sections, the CDC said it also decided to impose the new electronic manifest rules because the airline industry often would only respond to data requests submitted in writing.

The CDC acknowledged the heavy costs the electronic passenger manifest requirements would impose on the struggling airline industry. The CDC plans to collect data at what it calls the point of sales(POS) and estimates this would spread the cost among airlines, travel agents and global reservation systems used by airlines, hotels and travel agents.

But the CDC estimated that even under this scenario, it would cost the airline industry $108.2 million to collect and retain the passenger manifest data. It would cost global reservation systems $2.97 million under the preferred CDC POS plan and travel agents $50.8 million.

The CDC said in its rule that data collection can be streamlined by tapping into passenger data collected by DHS and TSA. But Eastern Research Group, in a regulatory analysis conducted for the CDC said TSA, intends to protect passenger privacy by using any personal information it collects only for counterterrorism.

The Eastern Research Group analysis added that CDC is working to obtain international passenger data from the DHS Advance Passenger Information System, but if it cannot reach an agreement to obtain that data, costs for the CDC data collection effort will increase.

The Eastern Research Group said the CDC may also have trouble obtaining data from Amadeus, one of the largest global reservation systems, because it is foreign-owned and stores passenger information in Germany. This information is covered by German laws on data privacy, and it would require changes in international law to obtain data from Amadeus, the Eastern Research Group analysis said.

Cetron said the CDC would employ rigorous standards of privacy to protect the passenger manifest data it collects, and the proposed rule calls for a one-year retention period instead of 10 years, which is the CDC’s normal practice for data retention. He added that a survey conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that 90 percent of the public wants health officials to have the ability to contact them in case of exposure to an infectious disease.

The CDC estimates it will take months to complete the proposed rule making. But CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding made it clear at the press briefing the new regulations are necessary to “respond to global emerging infectious disease threats and the globalization of infectious diseases and its translocation across borders.”


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