Why airlines can kick off sick passengers before a flight

If you're feeling a little under the weather the next time you fly, remember that your symptoms might get you kicked off the flight.

This recently happened to 47 people on a flight from Cape Verde to Manchester in the UK. There was a breakout on the island of gastric illness, and the pilot decided to boot those who were ill from the plane, including their healthy travel companions, reported The Independent. 

READ: The grimiest, germ-ridden places in airports and on planes 

But what rights does an airline have to offload passengers who appear sick? 

Besides spreading disease to other passengers and crew, sick people also have a high risk of having to divert the plane for a medical emergency, something that airlines try to avoid as much as possible. In most airlines' terms and conditions, there's normally a section that notes that they can refuse carriage if they deem a passenger unfit to fly.

Conditions are normally more strict for international flights than domestic, and airlines can be accommodating when arrangements have been made at least two days before flying alongside a medical form that needs to be signed by a doctor.

Sick passengers may be affected by the following:

  • Reduced atmospheric pressure (cabin air pressure changes greatly 15-30 minutes after take-off and before landing, and gas expansion and contraction can cause pain and pressure)
  • Reduced oxygen tension (The cabin is at a pressure equivalent to an altitude of 6 000 – 8 000 feet and oxygen partial pressure is approximately 20% less than on the ground). 

SEE: Health myths and risks of air travel - debunked 

What South African airlines say

Kulula, for example, stipulates that they can offload you "if you have refused or failed to undergo a health screening or a health examination requested by us or by a government or enforcement agency," which is similar for all airlines in South Africa. 

They also add that if "your condition is such that it is likely to interfere with and/or obstruct the crew in the performance of their duties and/or where your condition is likely to cause other passengers discomfort or cause them to complain" - so even with a hacking cough that sounds like a cat throwing up, you still might get the boot even if you're not contagious. 

ALSO SEE: 5 Ways that space travel can destroy the human body 

Flysafair also stipulates certain conditions regarding being flying fit.

"Medical passengers are passengers who have been physically or mentally compromised due to temporary or permanent disability or incapacity, have undergone surgery, hospitalisation, experienced illness or that require or depend on special services such as oxygen or use of specialised medical equipment.

"These passengers will require medical clearance to travel and must submit their doctors note along with the FlySafair special needs form directly to Flysafair no later than 48 hours prior to departure."

READ: 10 Travel tips for a healthy holiday

South African Airways, which flies internationally, is more specific regarding conditions that require medical clearance from a doctor before flying:

  • Travellers who require a medical escort or in-flight medical treatment.
  • Travellers who have a communicable disease or infection.  Your doctor must state whether the condition poses a direct threat to the safety or health of others and any precautions necessary to prevent transmission.
  • Travellers who have been operated on or admitted to hospital within the previous two weeks.  Your doctor must state whether you have recovered completely, and if your condition has stabilised sufficiently enough to travel by commercial air transport.
  • Travellers suffering from an acute or chronic medical condition for which they might need to take medication during the flight.
  • Travellers who suffer from any acute or severe symptoms, such as difficulty in breathing, high fever, severe pain, etc. 
  • Travellers who suffered from a recent major medical incident (heart attack, heart failure, stroke and respiratory failure or recent pneumothorax).
  • Travellers who suffered from thrombophlebitis.
  • Travellers who might develop any symptoms or behaviour that could harm the welfare of other passengers.
  • Travellers whose medical condition might be aggravated during or because of the flight.
  • Traveller who is travelling with a premature infant or an infant with a medical condition.
  • Traveller who is an unaccompanied minor with a medical condition.
  • Unstable mental illness/impairment.

But the best thing if you're unsure about your medical fitness to fly, is to consult a doctor and call up the airline at least three days before your flight. If you aren't able to fly in the end, airlines will refund you with a doctor's note - better safe than have to divert a plane full of pissed-off passengers.

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