Airlines scramble to enforce new coronavirus travel restrictions in 'imperfect system'

Key Points
  • Airlines are scrambling to comply with a Trump administration travel restriction orders for coronavirus.
  • All travelers flying internationally into the United States will have to be asked whether they have visited China.
  • The government is banning many foreign visitors who have been in China within the last two weeks.
A security staff member checks passengers documents in the departure gate at the Hong Kong International Airport.
Ivan Abreu | Sipa via AP Images

The Trump administration's sweeping new travel restrictions aimed at combating the spread of the new coronavirus took effect Sunday, leaving airline employees around the world scrambling to enforce them.

More than 17,200 people have fallen ill to the coronavirus worldwide, killing at least 361 people in China and a 44-year-old man in the Philippines, according to international health officials.

The new U.S. travel rules, announced Friday, prohibit foreigners who have been in China in the last 14 days from entering the United States. Exemptions include whether they are an immediate family member of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident. The U.S. is imposing a 14-day quarantine on citizens who have visited China's Hubei province — where Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, is located — and self-quarantines for citizens who have been in China in the last 14 days. Hong Kong and Macau are exempt, according to the president's proclamation.

The Transportation Security Administration on Sunday instructed airlines with flights to the U.S. from other countries to screen passengers before boarding to find out whether they've been in China recently, according to a security directive that was reviewed by CNBC. Check-in and gate agents or other employees are required to question travelers, look through recent reservations and possibly their passports for entry or exit stamps, according to the order, which provided examples of the stamps from China.

Airlines recommended U.S.-bound travelers arrive at airports earlier than usual.

TSA noted that it is not involved in screening air travelers bound for the U.S. from abroad but an agency spokeswoman said it "is requiring carriers to enforce portions of the president's proclamation that limit who may board a commercial aircraft destined for the United States."

The airlines don't have to rely only on passenger answers and must work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to make a determination, the spokeswoman said.

The restrictions are complex and will mean all travelers headed to the U.S. will likely get questioned, not just people coming directly from China, from where many carriers have already cut routes. From Mexico City to Rome to Dubai, airline staff or their local contractors will have to question all travelers before they can board a U.S.-bound flight in case they had traveled from China to another country before their flight to the U.S.

The screening will apply to tens of thousands of travelers a day. Customs and Border Protection figures show it processed an average of 371,780 people at U.S. airports each day in the last fiscal year, although February travel demand is much lower than in the summer. Some 14,000 people flew into the U.S. from China each day that year.

Foreign travelers who fall under the U.S. restrictions will be denied boarding. The U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have been in China in the last 14 days must be rerouted into one of 11 airports — Atlanta, Chicago's O'Hare, Los Angeles International, San Francisco International, Honolulu, Seattle, Newark, Washington Dulles, Detroit, Dallas/Fort Worth, and New York's Kennedy Airport — for enhanced screening.

"We realize this could provide added stress and prolong travel times for some individuals, however public health and security experts agree these measures are necessary to contain the virus and protect the American people," DHS acting Secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement Sunday. "To minimize disruptions, CBP and air carriers are working to identify qualifying passengers before their scheduled flights. Once back in the U.S., it's imperative that individuals honor self-quarantine directives to help protect the American public."

That means that if a U.S. citizen was in China and then traveled to Dublin with a later flight to Boston, the carrier would need to rebook them to one of the designated U.S. airports so they could be screened on arrival. (Passengers do not have to cover the cost of a change in their itinerary.)

Such a system relies on the self-reporting by passengers and how much information airline employees can confirm.

Some travelers arriving at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on Monday morning from India told CNBC that airline employees asked them if they had been in China when they departed for the U.S. but several other travelers who were arriving from the Dominican Republic, Kenya and Senegal said they were only asked upon arrival in the U.S.

"It's an imperfect system," said Henry Harteveldt, founder of travel consulting firm Atmosphere Research Group. "This is not the best approach. It relies on the honor system and some passengers are just not going to be truthful."

It's not the first time airline employees have been tasked with enforcing new rules for travelers. Gate agents and others have had to screen travelers for what has been sometimes confusing restrictions, such as the 2017 in-cabin electronics bans and outright bans on citizens of several nations.

Failing to follow restrictions can be costly because airlines are responsible for flying individuals without accepted documents back. They can also face fines of around $3,500, according to the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group.

Sec. Azar: Coronavirus is a public health emergency in the US
Sec. Azar: Coronavirus is a public health emergency in the US

-CNBC's Contessa Brewer contributed to this article.