Even before the Ebola outbreak in West Africa had exported a few cases to the U.S. the panic had already started to dampen tourism and air travel across the African continent.
Now, African airport leaders who recently gathered to discuss improving their customer service processes ironically have fewer customers to serve, especially from the U.S., Angela Gittens, director general of Airports Council International, told Airport City Wednesday by phone from Montreal.
“It has had an effect,” said Ms. Gittens, who served as general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport from 1993-98.
Ms. Gittens recently returned from the airport trade group’s regional forum in Durban, South Africa, where Ebola was top of mind for airport leaders from around the continent.
One of their key concerns was that sensationalism in the news had created uncertainty among African airport employees, who in some cases stayed out of work. Leaders have had to assuage their fears by communicating risks clearly, which hasn’t been all that easy in a hyped online media environment, she said.
While dramatic and dangerous in its symptoms and outcomes, Ebola doesn’t spread nearly as easily as some of the airborne diseases airports have had to deal with in the past, such as SARS, bird flu and the everyday influenza virus, Ms. Gittens said. Those who have contracted Ebola so far have been either family, undertakers or health workers, she added, noting that no one has been infected by picking up a suitcase or sitting on a plane with an Ebola patient.
For African airports, ACI has advised them to follow contingency plans developed to deal with other diseases.
“We’re basically telling them to take out the playbook that we developed for the SARS and bird flu days,” she said.
Geography lessons are in order for people who fear traveling to any part of Africa because of a contained outbreak on one side of the vast continent, she said.
“West Africa is closer to London than South Africa,” Ms. Gittens said. “As someone said, ‘The fear of Ebola is spreading faster than Ebola itself. Airports are having to deal with the fear. It’s easier for them to deal with the actual threat.”
ACI has joined the World Health Organization in questioning the effectiveness of the screening travelers by temperature upon arrival, procedures the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has instituted at five airports in the U.S., including Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta. Ebola patients are only contagious when they’re symptomatic, so someone carrying the virus during its incubation period would be difficult to detect.
Or, as Ms. Gittens put it in a statement:
“The scientific fact is that to contract Ebola one has to have direct contact with the body fluids, blood, secretions or articles contaminated with these fluids from an infected person. As a result, unless an individual has been to one of the three affected countries in West Africa and/or has been in contact with persons infected with Ebola, the risk of contracting the disease is very, very small.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Atlanta didn’t respond to Airport City’s inquiries about whether candidates for enhanced screening are selected based on whether they’ve visited the three affected countries – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – or their nationality.
A CDC release announcing the screening measures said the five airports selected handle the 95 percent of passengers from these West African nations. There are no nonstop flights from the affected countries to the U.S. Reese McCranie, a spokesman for Hartsfield-Jackson, said only about five to eight people have been set aside every day for enhanced screening since the measures went into effect.
In announcing the enhanced screening, the CDC admitted said it should only be seen as an added layer of security on top of a more effective approach that begins with exit screening West African airports. Nigeria and Senegal, which share land borders with the affected countries, have been praised for halting the spread of Ebola after its initial detection.
Ms. Gittens said ACI has worked with the World Health Organization and other organizations to train airport leaders on various procedures. ACI was also a founding member of a council set up by the International Civil Aviation Organisation to help transportation service providers tackle public health emergencies.
She said she was disappointed not to see Miguel Southwell, the general manager of the Atlanta airport, in Durban. Mr. Southwell is the director of the ACI Fund, an endowment that supports building capacity of airport officials in the developing world.
Ironically for a leader who is passionate about airports as the supreme tools for economic development tools, especially in poor countries, Mr. Southwell had to bow out of the Durban conference to oversee the implementation of screening measures at Hartsfield-Jackson.