Airlines, large and small, have to deal with all manner of challenges every day but a medical emergency onboard Emirates flight EK203 from Dubai to New York JFK was definitely a major incident for the airline to deal with. The A380 superjumbo was quarantined on arrival at 09:00 am yesterday after the Captain radioed ahead to say several passengers were unwell.
With the passengers showing signs and symptoms of the flu, local authorities in New York followed fairly standard procedures when a potentially contagious disease is suspected. The airliner was taken to a parking space away from the main terminal where health officials could screen passengers and treat anyone feeling unwell.
BREAKING: Emirates flight from Dubai quarantined at JFK after 100 people are coughing with high fever. @SykesStyle is a passenger on board and says some passengers were sick before they even took off @ABC7News pic.twitter.com/WP7Eim4ldh
— Caroline Patrickis (@Cpatrickis) September 5, 2018
The story initially sounded a lot worse than it turned out to be. Media reports at first said around 100 passengers were unwell, possibly due to a bout of food poisoning. Then a statement from the airline, put that figure at just 10 passengers – a later statement confirmed three passengers and seven crew members had been transferred to hospital.
It’s believed several others were treated at the scene and a few more refused medical treatment.
Statement: Emirates can confirm that about 10 passengers on #EK203 from Dubai to New York were taken ill. On arrival, as a precaution, they were attended to by local health authorities. All others will disembark shortly. The safety & care of our customers is our first priority.
— Emirates Airline (@emirates) September 5, 2018
In the whole, Emirates dealt with the incident quickly and professionally – despite the airline being based nearly 7,000 miles away from where the emergency was taking place, a reassuring message was quickly circulated via Emirate’s official social media channels.
Unfortunately, the airline hasn’t been able to provide an update on what caused the sickness – or how their cabin crew are being looked after. Food poisoning as the cause now seems unlikely and despite a very inaccurate statement from the New York City Mayor’s Office, it may well be that several passengers were suffering from the flu.
The theory, as it stands, is that EK203 had a number of passengers who had transferred onto the flight from Saudia Arabia. Emirates has been flying a lot of people to Jeddah and Medinah for the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca – according to the spokesman for the NYC Mayor, Mecca has recently suffered a flu outbreak.
*EDIT*: the flight was direct from Dubai. It appears some of the ill passengers came from Mecca before getting on in Dubai. https://t.co/53AnFS2Ygk
— Eric Phillips (@EricFPhillips) September 5, 2018
Of course, Emirates operates a worldwide route network with passengers transferring from many different destinations in Dubai – so locking the outbreak location down to Saudi Arabia is a little premature at this point.
As for the cabin crew, it may well be the case that the seven crew members were transferred to hospital as a precaution after being in close proximity to the sick passengers as they gave medical assistance.
Update: Test results from all hospitalised patients (seven cabin crew and three passengers) have come back positive for influenza. They will be kept in hospital as a precaution while further tests are ongoing.
We’ve reached out to both the Center’s for Disease Control (CDC) and Emirates for further details on what caused the sickness but have not received a reply at the time of publication.
What happens next…
But with seven crew members now receiving medical treatment in a foreign country the next question is how will Emirates safeguard its schedule over the coming days? After all, Emirates bases all its crew members in Dubai so it can’t simply call on standby crew members to operate some of the flights home.
We’ve now learned, however, that Emirates plans to use crew who have had less than minimum rest on scheduled flights from New York JFK to Dubai today. The airline currently operates two direct daily services between the two cities – the now infamous EK203 (which returns at EK204) and the slightly later EK201 (returning as EK202) which is scheduled to land on U.S. soil at 2:25 pm local time.
Test results on the 10 hospitalized patients find influenza. Some tests came back inconclusive on other viruses, which is common. They’ll be re-administered this morning. All 10 patients will be kept in the hosipital as a precaution until we know those final results. https://t.co/t4gOEkHJDN
— Eric Phillips (@EricFPhillips) September 6, 2018
Despite an average flight time of 13 hours and an 8-hour time difference, cabin crew are normally only afforded a 24-hour layover in New York City. With immigration clearance, transfers between JFK and a Manhattan hotel and pickup for the return flight home, that rest period is often limited to just 19-20 hours.
Less than minimum rest…
But it’s now believed seven crew members who arrived on the later EK201 service will now be expected to operate today’s EK204 service – Which could potentially leave them with just 14-hours rest. According to the official Emirates flight status, the airline has proactively pushed back departure by three hours – possibly to give crew more time to rest.
Nonetheless, there’s a potential that some cabin crew on this service will only have benefited from around 15-16 hours rest.
Rumours are now circulating within the airline that a Captain has told crew to refuse to work this duty, while staffers are reportedly scared to report fatigued due to potential repercussions from senior managers. As it stands, the company appears to have blocked access to internal rostering information which would confirm or deny this rumour.
There’s no doubt that Emirates has a big commitment to its many passengers. Any delay will result in customers missing connections and potential compensation claims. But at the same time, cabin crew fatigue is a real issue with potentially serious safety consequences – hopefully, Emirates are doing everything possible to look after the welfare of their cabin crew.
This article was updated at 15:15GMT to reflect an update from the NYC Mayors Office on the condition of the hospitalised patients and to confirm tests showed positive for influenza.