After the 2003 SARS and the 2009 swine flu outbreaks, epidemiologists took an interest in how air travel affects the spread of disease. A new study by MIT's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering now shows how an epidemic would spread in the first few days and seeks to pinpoint which of America's 40 largest airports might facilitate the spread of a pandemic.

The study shows that New York's JFK airport, followed by airports in Los Angeles, Honolulu and San Francisco would play a large role in spreading diseases based on their locations and airport traffic. In the report, MIT researchers say that they hope increased awareness by public officials in specific areas would enable vaccinations and treatments to be properly distributed in the early days of contagion.

Medical Daily reports that JFK is an important hub because it not only feeds a large base of people in New York, but it offers connecting flights to every part of the world. MIT researchers evaluated airports based on location, number of connections, and wait times to determine just how fast a disease could spread.

One major finding was the amount of time travelers spent in airports and at the eventually destinations affected the spread of viruses. Given the speed with which many business travelers move, this could be a critical point.

The study also seems to illustrate the fact that, despite Hollywood's insistence to the contrary, travelers behavior in airports could mitigate rather maximize the spread of a harmful pandemic, slow the cross-continental contagion.

It is worth noting that part of the reason airplanes have so commonly been associated with the spread of disease is that Gaetan Dugas, the so-called "Patient Zero" of the modern Aids epidemic, was an Air Canada flight attendant.

To read the full report, head to PlosOne.org; MIT's abstract can be found here.

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  • #10 Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport

  • #9 Miami International Airport

  • #8 Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

  • #7 Washington Dulles International Airport

  • #6 Chicago O'Hare International Airport

  • #5 Newark Liberty

  • #4 San Francisco Airport

    (AP Photo/George Nikitin, File)

  • #3 Honolulu AIrport

    (Kent Nishimura/AFP/Getty Images)

  • #2 Los Angeles International

  • #1 John F. Kennedy International Airport