Biden’s Advice to Avoid Air Travel Borders on ‘Fearmongering,’ Airline Says
(FOX NEWS) Vice President Joe Biden, discussing the spread of swine flu, said Thursday morning that he would advise against traveling in an airplane or in any confined space — a comment that an airline spokesman said borders on “fearmongering.”
“To suggest that people not fly at this stage of things is a broad brush stroke bordering on fearmongering,” American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said. “The facts of the situation at this stage anyway certainly don’t support that.”
Roughly 250,000 passengers use American Airlines daily, and not a single one of them has tested positive for swine flu, Smith said.
Biden, a longtime Amtrak rider who commuted daily between Delaware and Washington for decades, said on NBC’s “Today” show Thursday morning that he wouldn’t necessarily advise family members not to travel to Mexico, but “I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places right now.
“It’s not … going to Mexico, it’s that you are in a confined aircraft when one person sneezes, it goes everywhere through the aircraft. That’s me.
“I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway,” Biden said. “So from my perspective, what it relates to is mitigation. If you’re out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes, that’s one thing. If you’re in a closed aircraft, a closed container, closed car, a closed classroom, it’s a different thing.”
Biden made his comments the morning after President Obama told the nation not to panic and to continue their daily routine, taking logical precautions such as washing hands frequently and staying home if you’re sick. His remarks brought a quick rebuke from at least one airline, mass-transportation industries and industry trade organizations.
James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of America, the industry trade organization for the leading U.S. airlines, said Biden’s comments were “extremely disappointing.”
“Vice President Biden’s comment that people should avoid air travel in response to the H1N1 flu outbreak was extremely disappointing,” May said in a statement. “The airlines have been working daily with government agencies, none of whom suggest people avoid air travel, unless they are not feeling well. The fact is that the air onboard a commercial aircraft is cleaner than that in most public buildings.”
Aaron Donovan, deputy press secretary for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates New York’s bus, subway and commuter rail system, said both New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the MTA’s executive director rode the subway Wednesday morning to assuage any fears riders may have.
“There is no reason to stay off the subway,” Donovan said in statement to FOXNews.com.
Beth Harbin, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, declined to respond to Biden’s comments directly, but said travelers who are fearful of contracting H1N1 can change their travel plans without penalty.
“We are advising customers to use common sense when they travel — washing their hands, using a Kleenex when they sneeze, that sort of thing,” Harbin told FOXNews.com. “People need to make decisions that they feel are best for them. We are urging common sense when traveling, and we feel that if you do, you’re certainly safe for travel.”
Asked if the outbreak has impacted the airline as of Wednesday, Harbin replied, “It has not affected our operations at this point. We’ll just continue to monitor what’s going on to see if we need to do something differently.”
Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole said in a statement: “While we share the Vice President Biden’s concerns about the recent outbreak of H1N1 Flu across the country, no cases of H1N1 have been reported on Amtrak trains or facilities.
“Amtrak is taking this issue very seriously and is working with federal and state authorities. While Amtrak is asking employees to be watchful, we are reminding everyone there is no reason to panic, particularly since the railroad has procedures in place to manage this kind of situation.”
Officials from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority declined to comment on Biden’s statement. But Biden’s remarks are particularly cutting in light of the efforts by the agency to make sure its vehicles are clean and disinfected, including the use of a hospital-grade disinfectant to wipe down surfaces throughout its rail and bus systems. Metrobuses are spot-cleaned with the disinfectant every 14 days; Metrorail trains and station equipment are disinfected daily.
“It is important to remember that there are no reported cases of swine flu in the region,” Metro General Manager John Catoe said in a statement Tuesday. “However, Metro is taking precautions to keep riders and employees safe, and I’m being extra careful too before and after boarding a bus or train.”
Elizabeth Alexander, Biden’s spokeswoman, issued a statement later in the morning to clarify the vice president’s comments.
“The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the administration is giving to all Americans: that they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico. If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways,” Alexander said.
“This is the advice the vice president has given family members who are traveling by commercial airline this week. As the president said just last night, every American should take the same steps you would take to prevent any other flu: keep your hands washed; cover your mouth when you cough; stay home from work if you’re sick; and keep your children home from school if they’re sick.”
Meanwhile, Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalition, a nonprofit organization promoting telecommuting, said his phone has been ringing nonstop with queries from workers who want their bosses to develop telecommuting plans or from supervisors frantically trying to incorporate telecommuting plans before the flu fears spread further.
“I haven’t been off the phone in two days,” Wilsker told FOXNews.com. “People don’t want to get on airplanes right now. If it keeps getting worse, we’re going to find fewer and fewer people flying planes. A lot remains to be seen, but if we continue to head in this direction, people are going to have to make adjustments.”
Wilsker, who said flu worries could eventually escalate to widespread absenteeism, building closures or quarantines at firms across the country, said he skipped a meeting yesterday he would’ve otherwise attended, and he called in instead.
“There’s just no reason to overexpose oneself,” Wilsker said. “And that’s what I think [Biden] was saying. He was saying what a lot of people are thinking.”