Press Releases

2004 Releases

Survey Finds Most Air Travelers Want to Be Contacted After Possible Exposure to a Serious Contagious Disease

For immediate release: July 19, 2004

Boston, MA – A new study by the Harvard School of Public Health Project on the Public and Biological Security finds that the vast majority (94%) of air travelers would want public health authorities to contact them if they might have been exposed to a serious contagious disease on an airplane. Large majorities of Americans who fly domestically or internationally are willing to provide information that would help public health officials contact them in such an event.

Currently, international air travelers are required to provide emergency contact information and a large majority are willing to continue doing so. Nearly nine in ten Americans who travel internationally (89%) would be willing to give the airlines the name and telephone number of someone who could be contacted in case of an emergency. Similarly, about nine in ten (88%) of those international air travelers who take a cell phone, pager, or hand-held wireless email when they fly are willing to provide the phone or pager number or email address for these devices. Nearly three-fourths (73%) are willing to provide the addresses and telephone numbers of the places they are going. Overall, 89% of international fliers are willing to provide one or more type of contact information, 7% are unwilling to provide any, and 4% don’t know.

Domestic air travelers are not currently required to provide emergency contact information, but most of them are willing to. The proportion of domestic travelers willing to provide such information is nearly identical to that of international travelers. Overall, 93% are willing to provide one or more type of contact information, 5% are unwilling to provide any, and 2% don’t know.

These findings are based on interviews conducted June 4-8, 2004, with 1,006 adults nationwide, including 633 domestic fliers (Americans who take one or more domestic flights within the U.S. per year) and 240 international fliers (Americans who take one or more international flights per year).

“The combination of possible threats of bioterrorism carried out on airplanes and newly emerging infectious diseases has left most Americans willing to cooperate with public health authorities who need emergency contact information to head off the spread of dangerous diseases,” said Robert J. Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the project.

The worldwide SARS epidemic last year highlighted the difficulties public health officials can have in notifying airline passengers quickly. Their experience was that, once passengers left the airport, it was very difficult to contact those who might have been exposed to SARS. This raised the question of what could been done to make such contacts easier.

About half of domestic (52%) and international air travelers (50%) believe that public health authorities today can quickly obtain air passengers’ emergency contact information to warn them about possible exposure to a serious contagious disease.

Time Is an Important Consideration

There is an important caveat to air travelers’ willingness to provide emergency contact information: most are not willing to wait very long to provide such information.

More than three in five domestic (61%) and international fliers (66%) said they would either not be willing to give emergency information at all or would no longer be willing to do so if it added 10 minutes to the time it took to make a reservation or to check in.

In addition, about two-thirds of fliers said they were concerned that the privacy of their emergency information would not be protected. Nearly four in ten domestic (37%) and international fliers (38%) said they were very concerned.

“These findings suggest support for airlines and public health officials to work together to find some simple system where this information can be entered and retrieved easily while maintaining passengers’ privacy,” said Blendon.

Easiest Ways to Provide Emergency Information

About three in five domestic (60%) and international (63%) travelers who take a cell phone, pager, or hand-held wireless email with them when they fly said that the numbers or email addresses for these devices were the easiest form of emergency information for them to provide. A majority of those who do not take along such devices when they fly domestically (68%) and internationally (55%) said that it was easiest to provide the name and telephone number of someone who could be contacted in case of an emergency.

Air travelers considered the least convenient type of emergency information to be providing the addresses and telephone numbers of the places they were going.

For each of the types of emergency information air travelers were willing to provide, air travelers said that the easiest time to supply this information would be when they make their airline reservation.

For the complete survey and power point slides see:

Survey: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/press/releases/blendon/blendon742004.pdf
Slides: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/press/releases/blendon/blendon742004tables.pdf

This is the 16th in a series of studies by the Harvard School of Public Health Project on the Public and Biological Security. The project was funded through the federally-supported Center for Public Health Preparedness at HSPH.

This study was designed and analyzed by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. The project director is Robert Blendon of the Harvard School of Public Health. The research team also includes Catherine M. DesRoches, John M. Benson, Stephen R. Pelletier, Kathleen Weldon and Elizabeth Raleigh of the Harvard School of Public Health and Melissa J. Herrmann of ICR/International Communications Research. Fieldwork was conducted via telephone by ICR/International Communications Research of Media (PA) between June 4-8, 2004. The survey was conducted with a nationally representative sample of 1,006 adults age 18 and over. The sample included 633 domestic fliers (Americans who take one or more domestic flights within the U.S. per year) and 240 international fliers (Americans who take one or more international flights per year).

The margin of error for domestic fliers is +/- 4 percentage points; for international fliers, +/-7 points.

Possible sources of nonsampling error include nonresponse bias, as well as question wording and ordering effects. Nonresponse in telephone surveys produces some known biases in survey-derived estimates because participation tends to vary for different subgroups of the population. To compensate for these known biases, sample data are weighted to the most recent Census data available from the Current Population Survey for gender, age, race, education, as well as number of adults and number of telephone lines in the household. Other techniques, including random-digit dialing, replicate subsamples, callbacks staggered over times of day and days of the week, and systematic respondent selection within households, are used to ensure that the sample is representative.

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752
Email: rherman@hsph.harvard.edu