Delta and United Partner With CDC on Contact Tracing

The airlines will be collecting phone numbers and email addresses from passengers so they can be immediately contacted by the CDC in the event of possible COVID-19 exposure.

Delta and United Partner With CDC on Contact Tracing

Contact tracing is an important piece of the virus containment puzzle.

Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

Not long after Delta Air Lines announced earlier this month that it has partnered with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help facilitate contact tracing on international flights so that passengers can be informed quickly in the event of COVID-19 exposure, United Airlines said it will be collaborating with the agency on contact tracing as well—on both international and domestic flights.

As of December 15, Delta has been asking customers traveling to the United States from abroad to voluntarily provide five pieces of information to aid contact tracing and public health efforts:

  • Full name
  • Email address
  • Address in the United States
  • Primary phone number
  • Secondary phone number

While providing the information is not mandatory for most international passengers, it will be required of those who participate in Delta’s quarantine-free flights to Italy upon return to the United States. Foreign nationals or U.S. passport holders traveling to the United States on any Delta-operated flight can participate in the voluntary program.

International travel remains highly restricted and is still off limits for many (a ban is still in place on travel to the U.S. from Europe, Brazil, Iran, and China), but U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents residing abroad are legally allowed to enter the United States amid the pandemic. And there are no federal restrictions on international travelers arriving from countries that do not fall under the bans (though individual states have restrictions, such as mandatory quarantines and testing requirements, that can apply to international travelers).

Under Delta’s new contract tracing program, the airline is working with the CDC to streamline the process by directly and securely transmitting customer data to the CDC via U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This will give the CDC more immediate access to the data, “dramatically decreasing the time it takes to notify affected customers via local health departments” and helping to “reduce instances of potential exposure and slow the spread of the virus,” Delta stated.

The carrier said it will not retain the passenger information for any longer than is necessary to achieve the contact tracing and public health follow-ups.

Currently, if a passenger is confirmed to have been infectious with COVID-19 while traveling, the CDC requests a passenger manifest from the airline to identify all customers seated within two seats of the passenger who was confirmed to have COVID-19. That information is then transmitted to local health departments, which follow up with passengers in their jurisdiction.

Since the start of the pandemic, the CDC has upheld that contact tracing is a key component in transmission prevention.

To properly carry out the contact tracing program, Delta will work with its global airline partners (which include Air France, KLM, Alitalia, AeroMexico, Virgin Atlantic, Latam, and Korean Air) as well as with government agencies, health officials, and aviation authorities.

United’s contact tracing program includes domestic flights

On December 16, United said it is also partnering with the CDC on contact tracing, but the carrier is taking its program a step further and will ultimately be collecting customer contact information for all international and domestic flights.

During check-in, United customers will be asked to voluntarily provide an email address, phone numbers, and the address of where they will be once they reach their destination, details that can be difficult for the CDC to track down otherwise.

“The immediate access to the data will better support the CDC’s efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the United States and around the world,” United said in a statement.

United’s program will begin this week on all international arrivals into the United States and will expand to include domestic flights as well as outbound international flights. Customers can provide their information through the United mobile app, through the United website, or at the airport.

This story was originally published on December 3, 2020, and was updated on December 17, 2020, to include current information.

>> Next: International Fliers May Soon Need to Get COVID-19 Vaccinations

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at Afar where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined Afar in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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