Delta becomes first major carrier to launch contact tracing initiative

Dec 3, 2020

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Delta became the first major U.S. airline to launch a contact tracing initiative on Thursday, marking another step for the carrier in its host of anti-coronavirus measures.

With the program, the carrier is asking all travelers entering the U.S., including American passport holders, to provide their contact information for their stay in the country. The airline is requesting both a physical and email address, as well as two phone numbers, for each passenger headed to the U.S.

Should a traveler test positive for the coronavirus after an international flight, local health authorities will follow up with passengers who were sitting nearby with additional information about testing and a potential quarantine.

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The program, which begins Dec. 15, is entirely voluntary — except for the carrier’s quarantine-free flight trial to Italy. Delta is encouraging passengers to fill out the web-based form, but, unlike the mask mandate, it’s not a requirement.

The Atlanta-based carrier is partnering with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to process the data. Once a passenger fills out the form, Delta will securely forward the information to the Customs and Border Protection office, which will then pass it along to the CDC.

The contact tracing data will be part of what’s called the Advance Passenger Information System, which is already used for U.S.-bound international flights as a way for authorities to vet incoming travelers. Before checking in, flyers must provide some personal information, including passport details and nationality, which is then cross-checked against a list of suspected terrorists and other wanted individuals.

Currently, if there’s a confirmed case of the virus on a Delta flight, the CDC asks the carrier for a manifest of passengers seated within two seats around the positive patient. This time-intensive process can take days, allowing the virus to spread among others who might’ve been infected during flight.

By adding contact tracing information, the CDC will now have access to the data in real-time — speeding up the process of notifying affected individuals.

Speaking to those who might raise privacy concerns, Delta says “we will retain this information for no longer than is necessary to achieve the contact tracing and public health follow-up objectives, or as required by Customs and Border Protection.”

For now, this program is limited to U.S.-bound international flights. Of course, the list of eligible flights could theoretically expand depending on the success of this first phase.

The form will be located on Delta’s website and can be accessed anytime within 72 hours of departure. You’ll need your confirmation number to pull up your flight information. Note that you can only enter information for one passenger at a time.

(Screenshot courtesy of Delta)

Since March, airlines have implemented a whole host of anti-coronavirus measures.

Every major U.S. carrier has launched a comprehensive cleaning regime, touted the effectiveness of the HEPA filters and adopted a sweeping mask mandate. Some, like Delta, are taking it a step further by blocking the middle seat to promote additional distance while onboard.

In fact, Delta just extended its seat-blocking policy through at least March 30, 2021 — the latest of any major airline.

Related: How I secure empty middle seats — even if an airline isn’t blocking them

And now, Delta becomes the first major U.S. carrier to announce a holistic contact tracing initiative.

While the program is voluntary for most flights, there’s one in particular that mandates contact tracing: the carrier’s pilot of “COVID-free flights” to Italy.

Starting Dec. 19, flyers departing from the carrier’s megahub in Atlanta to Rome Fiumicino will need to take a total of four COVID tests throughout the travel journey. One before check-in, one before boarding, one on arrival in Rome and one on departure in Rome.

Delta check-in counters at the new SLC Airport (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Should a traveler test negative for the first three of the aforementioned tests, then the quarantine requirement will be waived. Note that Italy remains closed for tourism, though. As such, all U.S. citizens permitted to travel to Italy for essential reasons, such as for work, health and education, as well as all European Union and Italian citizens can partake in the trial.

As part of the trial, Delta will also now mandate contact tracing data for the return flight to the U.S.

Despite the contact tracing initiative, recent Department of Defense and Harvard studies have shown that — with mask mandates and HEPA filters — there’s little chance of catching the virus on a plane. Crowds in airports and in transits, however, can increase a person’s chance of exposure.

Nevertheless, with Delta’s new initiative, the CDC will have more up-to-date contact information, which will hopefully help the local health departments track down any possible infection vectors.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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