NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A health emergency involving several sick passengers on a plane arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport has raised important questions about what you can and should do in such a case.

When it comes to sick passengers, what are airlines’ protocols? Perhaps more importantly, what are your rights as a passenger? CBS2’s Alice Gainer spoke a pair of experts to find out the best ways to proceed on a plane if you suspect other passengers are sick.

In a statement, Emirates Airlines said all passengers on Flight 203 were screened by local health authorities prior to disembarking. Three passengers and seven crew members were transferred to Jamaica Hospital in Queens for further care, and nine underwent additional medical screening at a site near the plane before eventually being released.

Dr. Robert Amler is a former chief medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He says Wednesday’s incident sounds like a standard procedure.

“This is a well rehearsed scenario,” he told CBS2.

While tests are being done to determine what illness people who experienced coughing and fever have, there were a total of 521 people on board the flight.

So when can the other seemingly healthy people be considered in the clear?

“Typically that will be a matter of days for a respiratory infection,” Dr. Amler said. “Usually not a very long period, but depending on the circumstances they might be concerned about longer incubation periods in which case they would let them know.”

Dr. Amler adds those released should have also been given follow-up instructions on what to look out for. Some passengers on the plain complained they weren’t given masks, but Dr. Amler says if they’re not worn properly they won’t help anyway.

In any case, long flights provide a long time for a passenger to be exposed to any sort of infection. Legally speaking, aviation attorney Erin Applebaum says “it would be unreasonable to ask an airline to provide a mask for over 500 passengers simply because one passenger suspects one person may be ill.”

Applebaum adds that as a passenger, you have a right to alert the airline if you see someone who looks sick.

“As a passenger,  you’re never obligated to get on a plane and you shouldn’t do something if it makes you feel unsafe, but the airline has no obligation to reimburse you for your ticket,” she said.

Dr. Amler says when you’re in that kind of enclosed space, there really isn’t much you can do to avoid other people. Applebaum adds there are three things they look for if a passenger becomes sick because another passenger had a communicable disease:

  • Did the airline know the passenger was sick when they boarded?
  • If not, should they have known and did they canvass the passengers properly as they boarded?
  • If a passenger was sick midair, did the airline take the proper steps to address the problem when the plane landed?

In any event, the far reaching effect of Wednesday’s incident remain to be seen.


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