Airlines Refused to Collect Passenger Data That Could Aid Coronavirus Fight

The industry’s battle against collecting more information for the government dates back to 2005, when health officials were assessing their response to the SARS outbreak.

At the time, officials at the C.D.C. made what they thought was a simple request of airlines: Hand over five pieces of identifying information for each passenger, according to two federal officials with knowledge of the discussions. The C.D.C. wanted people’s names, phone numbers, email addresses, the addresses where they would be staying in the United States and emergency contact information. All the airlines needed to do, the government said, was ask a few more questions when passengers checked in for their flights.

The airlines balked: They said it would take months, if not years, to retool their computer systems to accept such information and to share it quickly with the government.

By the time of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, there still was no system in place. When the C.D.C. asked airlines for more information to help find passengers who were sick or had potentially been exposed to Ebola, the airlines complained about “the burden and the privacy concerns” of providing that data, Dr. Frieden said.

“They were vehement about it,” he said.

In 2016, the C.D.C. wanted to mandate by law that air carriers collect and share such information.

The industry again protested. Lobbyists from Airlines for America, a powerful trade association, noted that about half of all tickets were booked through sites such as Expedia and Travelocity. Those companies, which compete against airlines for customers, are loath to share passenger data with rival companies that might try to steal their business.

In an October 2016 letter to the C.D.C. and Health and Human Services, Douglas Lavin, an executive at the International Air Transport Association, another airline trade group, wrote that the “C.D.C. has not adequately accounted for the industry burden and cost for collecting these new data elements.” The letter was signed by five airline lobbying groups.

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