The future of travel: A new tracing system could help track COVID-19 positive passengers

As businesses slowly begin to open, more travelers will be taking to the skies in the coming months. Airlines have been working toward establishing guidelines to ensure the safety of their passengers and crew members, but if a traveler tested positive for the coronavirus days after being on your flight, how would you know? That could soon change.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, frequent flyer Amy Grace would take extra precautions.

"I always travel with some sort of disinfectant wipe and clean my entire area around me" Grace said.

In the past, catching a cold or illness after long flights is something many travelers could relate to, but we're living in different times now.

"If you're on a plane in that closed system, it's a much higher risk," said infectious disease specialist Dr. John Butler with Memorial Hermann. "The challenging thing with COVID-19 is that some of these patients you could screen them for temperature, for symptoms and you're going to still miss the asymptomatic patients."

If you're close to someone onboard, your chances are higher.

"If you're sitting next to them, that would be a risk, particularly for an extended flight" Dr. Butler said.

If you're wearing a mask or sitting further away, that could lower your risks of catching the virus, but it's not 100 percent.

Paul Hartshorn Jr. with the Association of Professional Flight Attendants shared a few concerns with Action 13 regarding safety on flights, including social distancing protocols.

"We have been concerned about the requirement for masks for both passengers and flight attendants," said Hartshorn. "We are concerned on the fact that it's the contact tracing and notification of exposure is not where it needs to be today."

But, that's about to change. Matthew Hiller is the CEO of TrekSecure, a tracing system for the travel industry.

"There's no centralized system to track it, so we built it. Our system will notify every passenger in the entire travel value chain. So airline passengers, hotel guests, cruise ship passengers, and then it goes a step further and protects the workers by isolating crews" Hiller said.

So how will it work?

For example, a traveler is onboard a flight and feels fine with no symptoms. But a few days later, they start running a fever and decide to get tested. If they test positive for COVID-19, medical personnel records the results, which are sent to the CDC.

Hiller said TrekSecure will receive that information from the CDC and the system will match those who test positive, and connect the dots with travelers and their routes. It will immediately alert those who might have been near the traveler on a flight, cruise or hotel. It will advise them to take the proper precautions to either monitor or possibly quarantine.
And it's not just for COVID-19. The system will be able to track other contagions as well, like tuberculosis.

"If an incubation period has passed, there's no need to alert those people. So we've built in the parameters based on each disease who should be notified and when" Hiller said.

What about personal data? Hiller said TrekSecure follows both General Data Protection Regulation and HIPAA guidelines, therefore no traveler information is released.

"They'll only be made aware that there was a passenger on that flight and all the other passengers will be notified once the information has been used and just discarded and destroyed," said Hiller. "Nothing is ever stored in a database and none of the end users can ever see that private information."

The platform is scheduled to go live May 15. Grace said she's happy the system will be in place for when she starts traveling again.

"I think we all need some peace of mind right now and this will help give myself and fellow travelers that peace of mind," Grace said.

TrekSecure is working with four major airlines and a cruise ship leader at the moment. The company said that list will grow quickly after the system launches.
Copyright © 2021 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.