The New York Times published a lengthy but deeply flawed report last week, “Airlines Refused to Collect Passenger Data That Could Aid Coronavirus Fight.” Here’s the lede:
For 15 years, the U.S. government has been pressing airlines to prepare for a possible pandemic by collecting passengers’ contact information so that public-health authorities could track down people exposed to a contagious virus.
The airlines have repeatedly refused, even this month as the coronavirus proliferated across the United States. Now the country is paying a price.
The implication of both the headline and the article is that airlines “could” have collected and provided the government with the (additional) information it wants. But that isn’t true.
While the Times’ reporters interviewed multiple government sources, they failed to fact-check this allegation with any sources independent of airlines or the government. And they failed to mention — if they even realized, which they may not have — that this isn’t an isolated dispute, but part of a continuing saga that has been going on since 9/11.
The supposed basis for the government’s demands for airlines to collect and pass on more information about travelers has shifted from “security” to “health.” But what’s happening is just another chapter in a long-running story.
Understanding that story requires a deep dive into twenty years of history of airline and government collaboration and conflict over collection and use of data about travelers.
Here’s some of the factual and historical context that the Times overlooked: