JFK Ranked Worst Airport For Infectious Disease

By Mo Mozuch on July 30, 2012 3:18 PM EDT

photo:reuters
photo:reuters

A study by researchers at MIT's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering ranked JFK as the U.S. most likely airport to spread an infectious disease. Los Angeles International (LAX), Honolulu (HNL), San Francisco (SFO), Newark Liberty (EWR), Chicago O'Hare (ORD) and Washington Dulles (IAD) were the other airports atop the list. The rankings have little to do with cleanliness and more to do with how people travel, and where.

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"You are a good spreader if your neighbors are good spreaders," Ruben Juanes of MIT told NY Daily News. "That's what's really essential."

Honolulu's third-overall ranking proves this, and challenges the conventional wisdom on how contagions spread. The prevailing wisdom is that busy airports pose the most risk because they offer the highest number of people for the disease to infect. If this were true, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest in the U.S., would rank first. Atlanta's airport actually placed eighth on the list.

The much-smaller Honolulu, which has eight aircraft gates compared to Atlanta's 199, outranks Atlanta because of its role in the international air travel system. So, although Honolulu airport gets 30 percent as much air traffic as JFK, it is nearly as influential in terms of contagion because of its location in the Pacific Ocean and its many connections to distant, large and well-connected hubs.

Researchers developed a computer program to analyze air travel data on all the flights that originated or landed in the U.S. from January 2007 to July 2010. More than 50,000 connections at 1,833 airports were examined for travel patterns among individuals, geographic location, the disparity in interactions among airports and passenger wait times. The amount of time passengers spent outside the airport, such as a two-week vacation in NYC, was also a factor in the analysis. One of the goals for researchers was to create a tool that could be used by international health organizations in the event of a global pandemic.

"The findings could form the basis for an initial evaluation of vaccine allocation strategies in the event of an outbreak, and could inform national security agencies of the most vulnerable pathways for biological attacks in a densely connected world," Ruben said.

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