In a surprise finish almost no scientists predicted, Honolulu International finished third in the competition against all other U.S. airports to determine the airport most likely to spread the next outbreak of a SARS or swine flu-like epidemic. Perennial disease magnets JFK and LAX took first and second place, respectively.

According to a report at PloS One, MIT researchers built a computer model to determine the "mobility patterns of individual travellers, and derived a metric to rank which airports in the United States would be the most influential spreaders of disease." JFK and LAX are both among the busiest U.S. Airports but scrappy Honolulu International isn't even in the top 20.

But, as the BBC notes:

Honolulu airport "combines three important features that catalyze contagion spreading", the study reports. Its geographical positioning in the middle of the Pacific Ocean makes it a prime layover between the US west coast and large Asian hubs; it's also "well connected" to other powerful spreader airports, such as LAX; and it sees a high volume of long-range travel; all of which would help to spread a disease outbreak.

Shitty news for unimaginative honeymooners, but how about these scientists, huh?

To fine-tune their new model, Gonzalez and her team analyzed cellphone data on top of passenger itineraries to determine real-world travel patterns, including layovers and re-routing.
"The spread of a disease is not random, just as human travel patterns are replicable and not random (particularly when taking into account return flights)," Gonzalez said. "We are able to create more accurate models due to our ability to analyze big data."

"Techniques such as multi-scale computer modelling … can make a contribution to strengthening our societies' adaptiveness, resilience, and sustainability."

Here's a video explaining the process:

In related news, between this and watching Contagion on Saturday night, I'm never flying again.

[Image via AP]