Don’t tell Samuel L. Jackson (Snakes on a Plane was bad enough), but on August 2011, a bat was found flying through the cabin of a plane shortly after take-off from Wisconsin. Failing to heed the seat belt sign, it flew around the cabin a few times before it was eventually trapped in a bathroom. The aircraft then returned to the Wisconsin airport…vnot sure whether that was because they were worried about the bat or because they didn’t have an available bathroom any more.

Unfortunately, when they got back to the airport, no one thought to close the plane door before opening the bathroom door, so the bat flew out of the bathroom, out of the plane, down the jetway, through the airport and was last seen exiting the airport via automatic doors (smart bat). The problem with the bat’s escape is there was then no way to determine whether it was rabid, since even bats with a good sense of direction can be shedding the virus. Because of that, it had to be assumed that the bat was rabid and an investigation ensued.

The Wisconsin Department of Health called the CDC for assistance and a standard investigation was undertaken. A key component was to determine who, if anyone, was potentially exposed to rabies, assuming the bat was carrying the virus. Rabies is spread through direct contact of saliva from an infected animal with broken skin or mucous membranes (e.g. mouth, nose). Most often, this occurs via a bite. Being in the same area as a bat doesn’t constitute a risk.

A rabies investigation typically involves interviewing people who were in the same area as the bat to see if they had any contact with it. That was done, but it was complicated by "difficulties obtaining an accurate passenger manifest...". (Considering it seems like I have to do everything short of depositing a DNA sample to fly to the US these days, I can’t fathom how they couldn’t have a list of who was on the plane.)

Anyway, the airline gave the CDC a list of 15 people that they knew were on the plane and 33 who had reservations (but apparently they didn’t know for sure whether they were on the plane). Considering 50 passengers were on the plane (not counting the bat), that left a few unknowns, which was compounded by their finding that some people who had reservations confirmed they were not on the plane. They tried various ways to contact people, but ultimately ended up with 5 mystery passengers.

Fortunately, the risk of rabies exposure in this case is low. All 45 of the contacted passengers reported having no direct contact with the bat, and it’s very unlikely anyone else did given the description of what happened. Similarly, none of the pilots (hopefully it was easy to figure out who they were) and other flight or ground crew reported any contact.

An environmental assessment was performed to see if there was a bat problem at the facility, and nothing out of the ordinary was found. They made a few recommendations to reduce the chance of this happening again:

  • Use of netting to cover crevices in the airport where bats might roost.
  • Extending and retracting jetways before the first flight of the morning (I guess to scare the bat out before a plane is hooked up).
  • Training employees on bat capture methods.
  • Testing any bats for rabies.

So, it was more of an interesting story than a true disease concern, but with rabies, you have to be thorough to convince yourself that there’s no risk.

It also seems like this bat was much more organized than the airline.