Airport health screeners in hazmat suits and armed with gun thermometers are becoming a familiar sight in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where the Ebola epidemic continues to spiral out of control. Passengers boarding aircraft are checked for fever. If cleared, they receive a stamped leaflet declaring them fit for travel.
The precautions are similar to steps taken during previous outbreaks of contagious diseases, including Middle East respiratory syndrome and deadly bird flus.
For now, the threat to air travelers outside West Africa appears to be low. The World Health Organization is recommending that in non-affected countries, authorities should strengthen the capacity to detect and immediately contain new cases, while avoiding measures that will create unnecessary interference with international travel or trade.
In addition, medical experts note that even if a passenger infected with Ebola were to board a plight, other passengers are not in imminent danger. The risks of contracting the virus from an infected passenger are "extremely low," according to Lee Norman, the chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Hospital and an adviser to homeland security on infectious diseases.
"If a traveler were to come in contact with a symptomatic Ebola patient who was bleeding, having diarrhea or vomiting, and the traveler came in contact with those bodily fluids, then it would be possible," he says. "But one would hope that a patient that ill would not be allowed on the airplane in the first place."
Nonetheless, the Ebola outbreak is raising questions that apply to any passenger who is not well. What are your rights to a refund or new ticket if you cancel a trip because you have an infectious illness? And what right does an airline have to deny you boarding?
A passenger who is ill might prefer to cancel and receive a full refund for the ticket. That's possible if you've purchased a top-dollar, refundable ticket. But most passengers opt for the cheaper, non-refundable fare. If you're too sick to fly, you can rebook a different flight but there will be a change fee of $200 to $300. And you'll have to pay the difference if the new fare is higher than the old one.
But there is an exception: If a passenger shows up at the airport and is denied boarding because of a visible illness, then the airline would offer a full refund.
The reasons behind the airlines' reluctance to offer full refunds appear to be mostly financial. Simply put, airlines don't want to refund tickets on a wide scale.
Every exception costs an airline potential revenue. Last year, domestic airlines collected $2.8 billion in ticket change fees, up from $2.5 billion the previous year. (Although it's not clear what percentage of that is from customers who had to cancel their flights because of an illness.)
If you do show up and inform the airline you are too sick to fly, a gate agent will make the decision whether to refund your money. Refunds are approved on a "case by case basis," says Steve Loucks, a spokesman for Travel Leaders Group, a network of travel agents.
"The availability to cancel a ticket depends on the situation, the airline and the type of ticket purchased," says Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Airlines for America (A4A), a trade association for domestic airlines.
The same goes for tickets to international destinations. That information is typically contained in a document called the contract of carriage or conditions of carriage, according to Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA). "Each airline makes its own decisions with regard to the refundability of a fare, subject to any government regulations as applicable," he adds.
In the wake of the Ebola outbreak, A4A is recommending that passengers who believe they have been exposed to the virus and possibly are infected not go to the airport but go to a medical professional for treatment. A doctor's note can sometimes persuade an airline to offer a refund, even on a non-refundable ticket.
And what if you think you're well enough to fly, but the airline disagrees? Under federal regulations, airlines may deny boarding a passenger who is a "direct threat" to the health of other passengers. "To be a direct threat, a condition must be both able to be readily transmitted by casual contact in the course of a flight and have severe health consequences," according to the federal regulation. It lists SARS and active tuberculosis as examples of direct threats.
Airlines have their own policies as well that give them the right to prevent a passenger from boarding. For example, American Airlines' international contract says it has "the right to refuse carriage to any passenger who has not complied with applicable laws, regulations, orders, demands, or requirements or whose documents are not complete."
Although this rule is thought to apply mostly to passengers with invalid visas or passports, it could also be used to send a sick passenger packing. Passengers with paperwork problems are offered a flight credit, in accordance with the rules of their fare.
Meanwhile, as the Ebola epidemic continues, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants to make sure airlines know how to handle a potential patient. A document called "Ebola Guidance for Airlines," updated on August 11, suggests providing a surgical mask and air sickness bag for a traveler who is coughing, sneezing or vomiting. The crew is advised to "wear impermeable disposable gloves for direct contact with blood or other body fluids."
And indeed, there have been cases of passengers flying who were later diagnosed with Ebola. Liberian-American Patrick Sawyer hopped a plane in Liberia, arrived in Nigeria, then collapsed and died of Ebola. It does not appear that he infected anyone on the plane but two health care workers who treated him in Nigeria were subsequently diagnosed with Ebola.
The Sawyer story is a reminder that even if ticket refunds are an important issue for passengers, preventing the spread of Ebola by airline passengers is a far greater concern.
Chances are you haven't considered the tail of the cow that made the milk that goes into your Nestle Crunch bar or the cheese in your (Nestle-made) Lean Cuisine frozen dinner.
But as animal welfare groups report, many dairy cows have their tails partially amputated, or docked, to help keep their udders clean. Not only is docking painful, it also pretty much disables the cow's personal fly switch, making it more susceptible to fly attacks.
On Thursday, Nestle, the world's largest food company, announced that it's requiring all of its suppliers to eliminate tail docking as part of a new commitment to improving the welfare of the farm animals in its supply chain. It will also mandate that its 7,300 suppliers of dairy, meat, poultry and egg products end all kinds of other common farming practices — like cage systems for chickens, gestation crates for pigs and dehorning cows.
But it's not just animal welfare groups that have been speaking up about the practices, which scientists largely agree cause suffering in the animals. The well-being of food animals is also increasingly important to consumers, as the company acknowledged.
"We know that our consumers care about the welfare of farm animals and we, as a company, are committed to ensuring the highest possible levels of farm animal welfare across our global supply chain," said Benjamin Ware, the company's manager of responsible sourcing, in a statement.
In the last year, several other major food companies have indicated that animal welfare is a new priority. Smithfield, the world's largest hog and pork buyer, said in January that it would extend the contracts of its suppliers who got rid of gestation crates — narrow stalls used to confine pregnant sows — by 2022.
But Nestle's new commitment is unique in a few ways. For one, it's the largest food company in the world, with $101 billion in sales in 2013. Delivering its milk, chocolate, eggs and meat to a growing consumer base involves a highly complex supply chain of farms with varying standards around the world.
Secondly, Nestle is partnering with World Animal Protection, an animal welfare NGO, which it says helped draft the new policy. The company says that makes it the first major food company to form an international partnership with an animal welfare NGO.
Nestle is also hiring the auditing firm SGS to check on its suppliers to ensure they make the changes. World Animal Protection will help verify that process.
Nestle's move is "the latest, and one of the biggest, in a series of actions by major food retailers, moving them away from an industrial-type production system that is callous and unforgiving toward animals," wrote Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United State, on his blog.
How many suppliers will have to change their ways? Nestle doesn't yet know.
First, it says, it will have to monitor the farms it buys from to figure out exactly what their animal welfare practices are and if they're bad actors. With that baseline, it will come up with a program to eliminate the crates and cages as well as enforce "responsible use of antibiotics."
But unlike recent commitments from Smithfield and Tyson, Nestle is not giving its suppliers a deadline for upgrading their animal operations. So it's unclear how quickly the changes will happen.
Other animal welfare groups who were in discussions with the company leading up to the announcement say they're optimistic the policy will yield real changes for the animals throughout Nestle's supply chain.
"Nestlé's new industry-leading policy will reduce the suffering of millions of animals each year and hopefully inspire other food providers to implement and enforce similar animal welfare requirements," said Nathan Runkle, president of Mercy For Animals, in a statement.
Air pollution is clogging the skies of our planet. Now one scientist thinks Earth may be just one of many polluted worlds — and that searching for extraterrestrial smog may actually be a good way to search for alien intelligence.
"People refer to 'little green men,' but ETs that are detected by this method should not be labeled as green," says Avi Loeb, an astronomer at Harvard University.
The idea of finding alien polluters may be a bit of a long shot, but Loeb says it's possible.
Astronomers have been able to glimpse the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system for a while now. In 2018, NASA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be larger and better than ever at looking at extrasolar atmospheres.
"The idea would be that when a planet like the Earth is passing in front of its host star, a small fraction of the light from the star would pass through the atmosphere and show potentially evidence for these pollutants," he says.
Some pollutants don't occur naturally. So if astronomers saw them, it would point to industrial activity on the planet. And that would indicate intelligence.
Loeb and two other researchers have published their calculations in the September issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, and on the preprint site arixiv.org. They show that if an Earth-sized planet orbits a type of star known as a white dwarf and has a pollution level 10 times that of Earth, the Webb telescope should be able to detect it — even from a distance of trillions of miles away.
Of course, one might expect that if intelligent life really was intelligent, then it would pollute less, not more.
But Loeb says the aliens might have a reason. For example, they might be colonizing a cold planet and deliberately creating a greenhouse effect to warm it up.
On the other hand, high levels of pollution also could show that the aliens spoiled their world.
"It may indicate that we are looking at the ruins of a civilization that destroyed itself, and that would serve as an alarm signal of not being environmentally friendly," he says.
Either way, it would prove that when it comes to making a mess, we are not alone in the universe.
Cyclists may soon have a convenient way to discourage bike thieves, thanks to new designs that use parts of the bikes themselves as locks. Two projects — one based in Chile, another in Seattle — are promising to provide peace of mind without the fuss of carrying a separate lock.
Like security-minded Transformers, the bikes can be manipulated to use their own parts as a lock. Fans of the approach say that if a thief breaks a lock that's part of the bike itself, it can't be ridden away. That sets it apart from similar ideas such as hiding a cable lock in the frame, or integrating a U-lock into a cargo rack.
From Seattle comes the Denny, whose handlebars are a curved rectangle that also detach to serve as a lock.
And from Chile comes the Yerka bike, whose downtube and seat post combine to become a sort of locking bracket.
Neither of the bikes are currently widely available - but they've both attracted attention this summer, and one of them is already on its way to commercial production.
That would be the Denny, which recently won a competition to pick out "the ultimate urban utility bike," held by cycling advocates Oregon Manifest. A collaboration between the design firm Teague and bike makers Taylor Sizemore, the Denny also has an electric-assist motor, automatic gear shifting and turn signals that are part of its built-in front rack.
As the contest winner, the Denny will be produced by Fuji Bikes and should be in bike shops next year, the organizers say.
The Yerka Project is the work of three engineering students who are working to get their project up and running. The Yerka team promises that it takes only 20 seconds to secure their bike, which has the stripped-down look of the single-speed bikes that currently buzz around many cities.
"Every lock can be broken leaving the bike intact," Yerka's engineers say. "That's why we decided to make a lock out of the frame."
Bassist, bandleader and composer Christian McBride has been a presence in jazz for more than 20 years. A veteran Piano Jazz sideman, McBride has accompanied the likes of J.J. Johnson and Cassandra Wilson on the show.
In this Piano Jazz session from 2001, McBride takes the spotlight as a dynamic composer and stylist who's leading a new generation of jazz players. He features his bass in duet with host Marian McPartland throughout the standard "Alone Together" and plays solo in his composition "Lullaby For A Ladybug."
Originally recorded May 2001.
- "Alone Together" (Dietz, Schwartz)
- "Billie's Bounce" (Parker)
- "Dolphin Dance" (Hancock)
- "Lullaby For A Ladybug" (McBride)
- "Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea" (Arlen, Koehler)
- "Midnight Sun" (Burke, Hampton, Mercer)
- "Sonnymoon For Two" (Rollins)