British Columbia

B.C. asks for Ottawa's help accessing critical flight data during COVID-19

Letter sent to federal transportation minister says flight manifests provided to health authorities to try and trace passengers possibly exposed to COVID-19 are often missing critical contact information.

'It would shock you to see what we get from the airlines when we request a flight manifest,' says Bonnie Henry

The B.C. government says data received from airlines to help trace passengers who may have been exposed to COVID-19 is often missing critical contact information. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The B.C. government has requested federal help getting information from airlines that it says is critical for tracing passengers who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

In a letter sent Wednesday, Claire Trevena, provincial transportation minister, says the data that officials currently receive from airlines when they request it is often missing crucial contact details. She is calling on her federal counterpart, Transport Minister Marc Garneau, to improve the situation.

According to Trevena, the lack of sufficient data means health officials must publicly list flights where passengers may have been exposed — which can cause public alarm — rather than efficiently tracing individuals at risk.

She urged the government to "ensure the data gathered is usable and traces back to the individual traveller directly," rather than simply listing flights with a positive COVID-19 case.

The letter is dated one day after Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry addressed the challenges during a news conference.

"It would shock you to see what we get from the airlines when we request a flight manifest," Henry said Tuesday, adding often the only thing the airline knows is how much someone paid for a ticket and nothing else.

'It would shock you to see what we get from the airlines when we request a flight manifest,' Dr. Bonnie Henry said on Aug. 4. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Trevena's letter says that instead of listing the name and contact information of the people on the plane, the data often includes the name of a travel agency that booked the flight, a frequent flyer number, or the name of the ticket purchaser but not the passenger.

As of August 4, seven flights have arrived in B.C. with possible COVID-19 cases identified on board. Across Canada, there have been 34.

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Tuesday there could be improvements to the data that airlines provide, noting flight manifests lack all sorts of details, making it difficult to reach people in specific seats.

Tam also said there hasn't been a confirmed case of in-flight transmission.

"Very few of our cases actually come from travellers at the moment," she said. "But now that our case numbers have gone down, there's been more interest in why don't we follow some of these planes and see if there's been any contact at all that's been exposed or transmitted."

The federal health agency Tam leads referred further questions to Transport Canada.

According to Transport Canada, air operators are required to keep name records for at least 180 days after the flight was completed.  (The Canadian Press)

Air operators have to record the names of everyone on board an aircraft, but there is no federal requirement that they submit passenger manifests to Transport Canada, said Livia Belcea, a spokesperson in Garneau's office.

Belcea referred further questions back to the federal health agency, saying it is responsible for facilitating information-sharing between airlines and provincial health authorities.

According to a statement from Transport Canada, air operators are required to keep name records for at least 180 days after the day the flight was completed. 

NDP transport critic Niki Ashton said the federal government needs to take a harder line on carriers to provide the necessary information for contact tracing.

"Airlines should be making sure that accurate information is being shared as soon as possible and it shouldn't be up to them to pick and choose how they do it," she said. "It should be the federal government mandating them."

Air Canada 'baffled' 

According to a statement from Air Canada, the airline provides flight manifests that include names, contact information, seat location and itinerary to any Canadian health authority within 24 hours of a request. The statement says Air Canada has not had a request from B.C. since March.

"We are baffled by Dr. Henry's comments," said the airline's statement, which also says it and the National Airlines Council of Canada have reached out to Henry and the B.C. Health Ministry on multiple occasions to discuss any concerns they may have, but they have not had a response. 

A statement from WestJet said the airline has safely flown more than 415,000 guests on 13,700 flights with no reported cases of transmissions since March 24.

An Air Canada employee checks a passenger's temperature at Vancouver International Airport on June 18. The B.C. government has reiterated that it wants the federal government to ensure airlines conduct rigorous screening of passengers. (YVR)

Trevena's letter not only calls on the federal government to improve the flight passenger data available to health authorities, but also says the B.C. government has noticed inconsistencies in safety guidelines concerning the air sector and COVID-19 protocols.

The letter closes with a request to Ottawa to ensure rigorous boarding screening, flexible cancellation policies, adequate testing for international arrivals, consistent rules on plans concerning eating, restrooms and use of the plane's middle seats.

Trevena also asks in the letter for the development of insurance protocols to cover the cost of COVID-19 treatment for visitors who may have to pay for treatment in British Columbia.

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With files from The Canadian Press