Obtaining critical passenger information from airlines has been challenging and B.C. wants the federal government to do something about it.
B.C.’s top doctor and high-ranking provincial politicians have criticized airlines in recent days for providing inadequate passenger information needed for contact tracing purposes to help slow the spread of COVID-19, claiming airlines “rarely” give them accurate data.
On Wednesday, B.C. went a step further, sending a letter to the federal government demanding they ensure airlines provide usable data that can trace back travellers directly.
“The data our public health officials currently receive is not necessarily complete and is sometimes unusable,” Claire Trevena, B.C.’s minister of transportation and infrastructure said in a letter addressed to the federal government and obtained by CHEK. “Instead of listing the name and contact information of the person on the plane, the data often includes the name of a travel agency that booked the flight or includes a frequent flyer number or the name of the individual who bought the ticket but may not have flown.”
Canada’s two largest airlines – Air Canada and WestJet – have had flights either arriving or departing from an airport in B.C. where at least one person onboard later tested positive for COVID-19. An Air Canada plane that landed at Victoria International Airport on July 13 had a case of COVID-19 on board.
Other airlines including Sunwing, Delta, American Airlines, United Airlines Philippine Airlines, Aeromexico, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines have all had flights either leave or depart B.C. where someone onboard later tested positive for COVID-19.
The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) used to notify passengers directly about potential exposure onboard a flight. They ditched the practice in March and have been notifying people through public announcements and the media ever since.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, the province’s provincial health officer, addressed the issue of passenger manifests in her briefing on Tuesday. She said the information airlines provide is shockingly inadequate, rarely accurate and that B.C. doesn’t even bother asking for flight manifests anymore.
“I can tell you that they may think they provide information but I can show you the sheets,” Henry said, adding. “We stopped asking for flight manifests . . . We have requested flight manifests, and even in March when we were trying to get them, it took days to get them.”
Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam has also suggested flight manifests lack certain information that could be useful when attempting to contact trace. She has also said there has not been any in-flight transmission of COVID-19.
Unlike international flights arriving in Canada, where airlines are required to provide Health Canada with information about passengers on board, there is no such requirement for domestic flights.
Both Air Canada and WestJet told CHEK that they haven’t received requests for flight manifests from B.C. in months or ever and said if the provincial government wants flight manifests and passenger contact information, all officials need to do is ask.
“We provide flight manifests to any Canadian health authority upon request, within 24 hours, as part of a well-prescribed process for all infectious disease management. Health authorities have a responsibility to undertake contact tracing for any health matter,” an Air Canada spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement to CHEK. “We have not had any requests for flight manifests from any Canadian health authority recently, and specifically from B.C. since early March 2020.”
A spokesperson with WestJet told CHEK the airline has never received a request from the BCCDC for manifests but would provide them if the provincial government wanted them.
“Since the onset of the pandemic, we have provided fulsome manifest information that can include name, contact information and reservation details of our guests in an expedient manner when requested by public health authorities across the country,” the spokesperson said, adding that the airline also posts recent flights where passengers were potentially exposed to COVID-19.
Air Transat, which has not had a flight with a confirmed case of COVID-19, told CHEK they will provide a passenger manifest to health officials if requested, but also said it is up to the passenger to provide authorities with contact information.
“If we were contacted to provide a passenger manifest for public health, we would provide it. The manifest contains the passenger name and seat number as well as information about checked baggage,” Air Transat said. “It is the passenger’s responsibility to provide contact information to the authorities, in accordance with the Order, based on their individual circumstances.”
An airline official with direct knowledge of the aviation industry told CHEK if the passenger books direct on the airline’s website, sharing the passenger’s information is much easier for the airline but if the passenger books using a travel agency or third-party website, there is a “grey-area” in terms of sharing information. They said when the passenger uses a third-party their information becomes the third-party’s responsibility and it becomes their “information to share.”
The official, who could not speak on the record matter and asked to remain anonymous, also said provinces and health authorities don’t have to request manifests from airlines by going through Transport Canada or Health Canada first.
Henry, however, believes British Columbia and Canada need a unified and coordinated information-sharing system that will allow authorities to be able to rapidly contact travellers exposed to COVID-19.
“We need to have a system that allows us to identify people rapidly,” she said. “Or we need to have a system like they are doing in China right now, everybody spends two weeks in quarantine in a hotel right now. I don’t think that is as far as we need to go right now, we will see, but at least to be able to have contact information – a name, an address, where they stayed, where they are living – that would be incredibly helpful in allowing us to do this efficiently.”
With files from Canadian Press.