American Airlines Flight From San Francisco Prompts Hepatitis Scare

Passengers on a recent American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Charlotte, North Carolina, have possibly been exposed to the hepatitis A virus. It has prompted a public health response from both the airline and local health officials after the Center for Diseases Control was notified that a flight attendant was confirmed to be carrying the virus.

Passengers on a recent American Airlines flights were possibly exposed to the Hepatitis A virus. Photo: Tomas Del Caro via Flickr.

The impacted flight was AA1960 flying from San Francisco to Charlotte on Saturday, September 21, 2019. AA1960 is a morning departure from San Francisco, utilizing an A321 aircraft which seats 187 passengers. The media reports to date have come out of the Charlotte area and focused on Charlotte residents who were on the flight. There were 18 of them. All have since been vaccinated against the virus.

In a statement, an American Airlines spokesperson said;

“The safety of our customers and team members is our top priority. We are in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and public health officials and will coordinate with them on any required health and safety-related measures.”

A local health official from Charlotte, Rebecca Carter, told The Charlotte Observer;

“The risk was only to the passengers on the flight … There was no risk to the public.”

Planes can be a perfect Petri dish for Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is the lesser-known cousin of the hepatitis C virus. Whereas hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus, Hepatitis A is most commonly spread by fecal matter. Aircraft can be perfect Petri dishes for a number of viruses such as hepatitis A.

If someone knowingly or unknowingly infected with hepatitis A uses the aircraft toilet, doesn’t wash their hands properly and touches the taps or door handle, they could leave a minute amount of facial residue on the surface. This would then be readily picked up by the next person using the taps or door handles.

And let’s not get started on tray tables, seatbelt clips, armrests, and call buttons.

Dirty INF screens are a good way of spreading disease. Photo: American Airlines.

Hepatitis A and many other viruses and bacteria can be easily spread – and not just in aircraft. However, simple hygiene such as properly washing hands can help prevent their spread.

Are planes really airborne disease incubators? 

The point of this article is not beat up a local story about possible exposure to a virus you can get vaccinated against. Every time we interact with another person, we run the risk of catching something. It’s a part of life and living life. 

But tight, confined, closed spaces like aircraft do enjoy a particular reputation for being disease incubators. At Simple Flying, we’ve reported on the recent rising rate of aviation measles. Catching the measles pales beside the very unappealing sounding Mongolian plague which managed to kill two people and ground a Hunnu Air flight in Mongolia earlier this year. 

The fact remains that incidents like this are oddities. Sure, the Mongolian plague sounds awful and makes for a great headline, but there are over four billion seats sold on passenger flights annually. Statistically the chances of a passenger catching anything while airborne is pretty low.  Modern aircraft, particularly jet aircraft that are pressurised, have high-efficiency air particle filters that are good at capturing airborne viruses being circulated around aircraft cabins.

There’s a greater chance of picking up something in the airport terminal than the aircraft. Photo: Andrew Curran / Simple Flying.

Of course, these filters only work when the virus is spread via airborne means (such as measles or influenza). Filters are useless against non-airborne viruses such as Hepatitis A.

That’s where good hygiene on the passenger’s part and a good clean of the aircraft on the cleaning crew’s part comes into play. Of course, we know neither individual passengers or aircraft cleaning is perfect. And while humans continue to move around and interact with each other, incidents like the recent exposure to hepatitis A on the American Airlines flight will continue to dog us.