Most people flew to avoid being stricken by the “flu of death”

“Unsafe for travel” was the message for U.S. citizens traveling abroad during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Those working on the dangers posed by that “flu of death” received a range of conflicting information, leaving many unwittingly enticed into traveling.

The great demand for flights during the yearlong spread of the 1918 flu was probably the worst-case scenario envisioned by any leading influenza expert, according to a newly released National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) report. Known as the Spanish flu pandemic, the World War I-era outbreak sent up to 50 million people into quarantine or death, with a 50 percent mortality rate in certain countries. While the spread of the flu was exceedingly deadly, some population estimates pegged the number of deaths more conservatively, at about 18 million.

But those numbers are actually tiny compared to the reported demand for transportation on airlines as the pandemic struck. Between the two halves of 1918, International Civil Aviation Organization figures show that 49 percent of flight arrivals were for flights out of the United States, and 26 percent were for flights into the U.S. Based on some of the guidance given by the U.S. public health services, it would be easy to believe that Americans were completely ignoring the dire predictions of the president of the World Health Organization. President Calvin Coolidge warned: “We must eliminate the disease, not carelessly or willingly, but intelligently, as soon as possible.”

Flu experts told Reuters in May that they were surprised that there had been such a strong demand for travel at the time. The president of the CDC said that, based on oral histories and airline records, travel for influenza had not been an anomaly, but rather consistent with trends seen in other pandemics of history. “I think it is fair to say it was a very, very unusual year,” said Scott Weaver, director of the Tulane University Center for International Infectious Disease Epidemiology.

The report, “Travel Information from a Collection of Suspicious Factors for the Spanish Influenza Pandemic,” shows that passenger shipping in the United States and abroad was extraordinarily high in 1918. In most cases, travelers were coming from neighbors, rather than foreign countries; if a plane was making a transcontinental flight, it was likely flying directly from another region of the United States, rather than a world destination. Numbers for any single destination could be extremely high, especially as the pandemic spread rapidly. One analysis from NARA showed that in June 1918, for example, nearly 2 million flights arrived or departed from San Francisco; the city received more than 13,000 daily passenger flights by the end of the year.

All of that demand might have been unavoidable. According to early research, the 1918 flu emerged in the United States in April 1918. Its effects worsened quickly, with the flu becoming widespread in the spring of that year. But once the outbreak did worsen and began becoming an epidemic, would-be travelers were left with a range of conflicting information, from first-hand knowledge of the deadly effects of the flu, to the advice of some leading infectious disease experts, to advice from the World Health Organization.

People with homes with air conditioning likely avoided the flu during summer months; many would take annual summer vacations, which are easier to accommodate than winter vacations. In fact, in many parts of the country, international air travel remained as popular as ever. In a description of a World War I outbreak, Genevieve Lischke, a foreign language professor at the University of Missouri and the author of “Travel to Asia,” wrote of “strettling over a lengthy train trip” to China when she traveled to the Far East in 1919. While flu experts had estimated the probability of a flu outbreak in 1918 at 5 percent, those trying to travel were hoping to avoid one.

For many those trying to travel to Asia, the Russian Potato War meant the country had significant political instability. As WWI ended, political instability in Europe led to the outbreak of influenza. The United States was mostly fairly healthy. Travelers escaping the flu heard a wide range of warnings from experts at the time, but were advised to exercise patience and flexibility as they planned their travel plans. “The experts have often underestimated the dangers in an overly restrictive or inquisitive manner,” Mark Voss wrote in 1933 in a correspondence journal on foreign travelers.

But that advice was not heeded.

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