Biden swine flu comments prompt correction

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Thursday he would tell his family to stay off planes or subways to avoid swine flu, prompting his office to go into damage control and the travel industry to complain.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) listens to Vice-President Joe Biden in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, April 16, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young/Files

Asked on NBC’s “Today” show what he would tell members of his family if they asked him whether they should get on a commercial airliner to Mexico in the next week, Biden said:

“I would tell members of my family -- and I have -- I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now.”

He said the problem is that “when one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft.”

“I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway. So from my perspective, what it relates to is mitigation,” he said.

Biden, a former senator, is famous for making blunt comments and sometimes gaffes. The Obama White House quickly sought to fix what he had said.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told MSNBC that if Biden “could say that over again, he would say if they’re feeling sick they should stay off of public transit or confined spaces because that, indeed, is the advice that we have been giving.”

Biden’s spokesperson, Elizabeth Alexander, sought to clarify Biden’s remarks in a statement issued shortly after his television interview.

“The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the administration is giving to all Americans: that they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico,” she said.

“If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways. This is the advice the vice president has given family members who are traveling by commercial airline this week,” Alexander said.

The U.S. travel industry has already suffered from the ongoing recession.

The U.S. Travel Association, a travel industry group, issued a statement that it said was in response to “recent comments that might discourage Americans from using public transportation or commercial aviation during the ongoing spread of swine flu.”

“Elected officials must strike a delicate balance of accurately and adequately informing citizens of health concerns without unduly discouraging travel and other important economic activity,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the association.

Dow urged Americans to heed the advice of medical experts when determining how best to manage health concerns during flu outbreak, and to listen to President Barack Obama.

“According to President Obama, swine flu is a cause for concern, but not panic. President Obama’s measured and responsible comments are appropriate and should provide useful guidance to other elected officials,” Dow said.

Additional reporting by Sue Pleming