Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the CDC, during testimony at the Rayburn House Office Building on October 16, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the CDC, during testimony at the Rayburn House Office Building on October 16, 2014 in Washington, DC.  The Washington Pos/Getty Images

Why Airlines and the CDC Oppose Ebola Flight Bans

Oct 17, 2014

The debate surrounding travel bans as a way to curb the spread of Ebola has intensified after Thursday’s congressional hearing, unleashing a flurry of impassioned arguments on both sides.

The stakes are high: those for a flight ban believe it’s a necessary protection against a deadly epidemic that has already reached American soil, but those against it say a ban would make the U.S. even more vulnerable to the virus.

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), who ran the hearing, wants to prohibit all non-essential commercial travel from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as institute a mandatory 21-day quarantine order for any American who has traveled to the stricken African nations. This quarantine would include a ban on domestic travel.

Murphy explained his position at the opening of Thursday’s hearing: “A determined, infected traveler can evade the screening by masking the fever with ibuprofen... Further, it is nearly impossible to perform contact tracing of all people on multiple international flights across the globe, when contact tracing and treatment just within the United States will strain public health resources.” Murphy is not alone; other lawmakers such as House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) agree.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, maintains that these congressmen have it backwards. While they think a travel ban would secure the U.S. border from Ebola and shrink the potential spheres of contact, CDC director Tom Frieden says instituting a flight ban would forfeit what little control we currently have over the virus.

“Right now we know who’s coming in,” Frieden said at the hearing. “If we try to eliminate travel… we won’t be able to check them for fever when they leave, we won’t be able to check them for fever when they arrive, we won’t be able—as we do currently—to see a detailed history to see if they’ve been exposed.” The White House has sided with Frieden. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday that a travel ban is “not something we’re considering.”

Inside the Ebola Crisis: The Images that Moved them Most

Ebola in Sierra Leone for the Washington Post
Pete Muller, Aug. 26, 2014. Sengema, Sierra Leone."The rain started shortly after a small team of Red Cross burial workers approached the body. The deceased man, reportedly in his mid-sixties, collapsed and died outside his remote home more than a day before the burial team arrived. Having received instructions from officials that bodies of Ebola victims are extremely contagious, his family members placed a sheet over his body, marked a cordon in the sand, and called the Red Cross. With approximately 20 burial workers serving all of Kailahun district, an area the size of Rhode Island and rife with Ebola, the team had a backlog of cases. His family endured the presence of his body, laying prone and exposed to the elements, for more than 24 hours. As the team removed the sheet, the stench of death filled the air. The white cloth around the man’s head was crimson with blood. As burial workers sprayed him with chlorine, family members erupted with emotion. I was moved imagining how I might respond if I were in the situation. To me, this picture represents the range of Ebola’s emotional impact. In the two women, we see the devastation and loss that the virus causes. In the faces of the men, we see a sense of despondence, disbelief and suspicion that also defines the response. It was a difficult but necessary picture to make."Pete Muller—Prime for the Washington Post
Ebola in Sierra Leone for the Washington Post
Body removal team preps a body to be removed from the West Pont facility.
Idrissa-koruma, a 35 year old man, the husband of Baindu-koruma a 28 year old woman, grives her death of Ebola deadly virus.
Liberia Battles Spreading Ebola Epidemic
Benedicte Kurzen, September 2014."From early morning till late in the afternoon, we followed the Liberian Red Cross. They have a list of people who died and they go to their communities to collect the bodies. Every time the Red Cross workers do the same thing: they wear protective clothing, interview the family, spray the perimeter and the room, and the body. They carefully open the body bag, carry the body outside for pick up — sprayers and volunteers facing each other — and later remove their protective clothing as carefully as they can. Their work is measured, slow: any direct contact with the dead person's body can be dangerous. In this photo, it is all about the gesture. In this chlorinated, silent corridor, there is little else that can convey humanity besides this gesture. This is one human helping another."
Dominique Faget, Aug. 26, 2014. Bandor, near Monrovia, Liberia. "I went with a team from the Liberian Red Cross to Bandor from Monrovia to pick up five dead people who had been infected with the Ebola virus. After photographing the removal of three bodies, including a young pregnant woman, I followed the team to a small cottage house where we had heard the bodies of a dead couple were. Once there, one of the Red Cross team responsible for the removal of their bodies gestured to me, patting his heart — indicating that these people were still alive. I then approached and photographed this man lying silently in the doorway of his home. I wondered how many days this poor sick man, like hundreds of others, had been waiting alone?
Ahmed Jallanzo, Aug. 20, 2014. Monrovia, Liberia."Violence had broken out in the slum township of West Point as the government tried to quarantine tens of thousands of residents in order to stop the spread of the deadly Ebola virus. As I walked through the town to cover the reactions of residents towards security forces, I saw 15-year-old Shakie Kamara bleeding profusely, a pool of blood forming around him, with his right hand placed underneath his broken leg to keep it in balance. He was caught in clashes with police and had been shot. The ambulance service was somewhat slow to respond as he repeatedly cried for help. The tragic irony is that no one dared try to help for fear of contracting the Ebola virus from his blood and bodily fluids, as avoiding contact is one of the measures of preventing the disease from spreading.
Tommy Trenchard, Aug. 20, 2014. Monrovia, Liberia.
EBOLASTAFFING
Sylvain Cherkaoui, April 19, 2014. Gueckedou, Guinea."Doctors Without Borders sent me to Guekedou Forest in Guinea to cover the current Ebola crisis. After receiving an alert a team of doctors went to look for a woman who was exhibiting symptoms of the Ebola virus. When one doctor took her temperature, it was confirmed: she was infected and had to be admitted to the care center. After donning protective gear, I followed her into the field hospital and took this picture when health care workers told Finda that she had Ebola. What I did not know was that she had an extremely high viral concentration. The next morning, members of her family came to visit. Not long after, maybe minutes later, a nurse told me that Finda had died during the night. It happened so fast, I was shocked and deeply moved."
Pete Muller, Aug. 26, 2014. Sengema, Sierra Leone."The rain started shortly after a small team of Red Cross burial worke
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Pete Muller—Prime for the Washington Post
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Even if Republican lawmakers are correct that a travel ban could curb the spread of Ebola in the U.S., it would also curb the movement of American health workers to the West African countries that are already desperate for more aid.

“If we do things that unintentionally make it harder to get that response in, to get supplies in, that make it harder for those governments to manage, to get everything from economic activity to travel going, it’s going to become much harder to stop the outbreak at the source,” Frieden said this week. “If that were to happen, it would spread for more months and potentially to other countries, and that would increase rather than decrease the risk to Americans.”

There’s also a practical concern surrounding the bans. Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States and who later died from the disease, took three flights and flew on two airlines on his trip from Monrovia, Liberia to Dallas, TX, stopping in Belgium on the way. Prohibiting travel from West Africa to the United States quickly falls down the rabbit hole of connecting flights in Europe, especially since there currently aren’t any direct flights between the U.S. and the primary Ebola hot zones.

A spokesperson for Airlines for America, the industry trade organization for leading U.S. airlines, told TIME, “We agree with the White House that discussions of flight bans are not necessary and actually impede efforts to stop the disease in its tracks in West Africa.”

And if domestic or international travel bans were to be instituted, others familiar with the airline industry warn of unintended consequences. Greg Winton, founder of The Aviation Law Firm outside Washington, D.C., told TIME that mass flight restrictions “will have a huge impact financially, certainly on the whole economy, not just the aviation sector.”

But at this point Winton says anything is possible, citing the Federal Aviation Administration’s shut down of air travel following 9/11 as an extreme precedent. “As far as FAA aviation law, none of that really takes precedence over disease control at this point,” he said.

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