Flight attendants told to continue flying even after coming into contact with coronavirus patients

Exclusive: Flight attendants worry they could be silent carriers of the coronavirus and are helping to spread it across the country 

Richard Hall
New York
Friday 03 April 2020 21:00 BST
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Flight attendants working for US airlines have been told to continue flying even after being exposed to passengers who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Some fear the policy may be helping spread the virus across the country as they become unwitting carriers, as well as putting them at risk of falling dangerously ill.

“We’re being exposed and we’re probably spreading it,” said a flight attendant for a major US airline, who asked to remain anonymous. “I don't know what the answer is, apart from to stop flying regular passengers around.”

Health officials have advised against all but essential travel to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but not everyone is following that advice. Airline staff say people are still taking vacations in some parts of the country, encouraged by a dramatic drop in ticket prices — and a smaller number are flying to bump up their air miles.

The coronavirus is known to be transmittable in patients long before they show symptoms. Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said as early as January that there was "no doubt" that asymptomatic transmission was occurring. Some infected people don't show any symptoms at all, and could be silent carriers.

“I think universally we feel we should not be flying around regular passengers,” the attendant said. “We don’t mind flying cargo, we don't mind flying emergency workers — doctors and nurses — that's worth the risk. But it’s not worth the risk to fly people around on a cheap ticket to see a city they have never seen before.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) usually informs airlines when an infected passenger has travelled on one of their flights. But even when they have flown with infected passengers, attendants are told by supervisors to continue to fly.

One attendant with SouthWest Airlines said they had come into contact with passengers who tested positive for Covid-19, but were told by supervisors to carry on working unless they show symptoms. In another case, an entire flight crew was told they had flown with a coronavirus patient, and were told to continue working while self-monitoring. American Airlines and Delta employees are reportedly being told they are subject to the same policy.

One airline employee found out on the news that an infected passenger had been on their flight. Many have reported their colleagues contracting the coronavirus and calling in sick.

US airlines appear to be following guidance from the CDC, which has classified flight attendants and crew as essential infrastructure workers. The advice given to essential workers differs from that given to the general public.

The CDC recommends that anyone who has had close contact (less than 6 feet) for a prolonged period of time to stay at home for 14 days and maintain social distance. The advice for airline staff, meanwhile, says that “as long as they re­­­­­main asymptomatic, crew members may continue to work on flights into, within, or departing from the United States.”

The CDC website also states that "crowded travel settings, like airports, may increase chances of getting Covid-19, if there are other travellers with coronavirus infection.”

In response to a request for comment from The Independent, a spokesperson for the CDC said its guidance "also states that regardless of residence or travel history, crewmembers who have known exposure to people with Covid-19 should be assessed and managed on a case-by-case basis."

"Crewmembers with high-risk exposures may need to be excluded from work. These decisions should be made by the individual airlines’ occupational health programmes in coordination with their state or local health departments," the spokesperson added.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the largest flight attendant union in the US, said her organisation was working to change the CDC's guidance.

“It’s absurd for many reasons. It’s absurd because it risks flight attendants’ health, but also because we’re the ones who have most contact with passengers. We pick up their trash, hand them their food," she told The Independent. "Having different guidance for the people whose job it is to interface with thousands of people a day — it seems the CDC would want to fix that."

Ms Nelson said that some airlines had gone beyond the CDC's guidance to allow their staff to quarantine after exposure, with pay, but that the message had not got through to frontline supervisors.

"You have supervisors not even following their own company guidance. In general, the airlines have been more responsive to our recommendations than we have ever seen in the past with an epidemic or pandemic, but it really requires federal coordination."

When contacted by The Independent, SouthWest Airlines and American Airlines said they had taken a number of actions to protect their staff during the coronavirus outbreak.

A spokesperson for SouthWest Airlines said “the safety of our employees and customers remains our uncompromising priority during this pandemic.” The airline said it had introduced a company-wide “emergency time off programme”, which offers voluntary time off with partial pay and full medical benefits.

“We are evaluating each Flight Attendant’s situation during this dynamic time on a case-by-case basis to offer full support, and there are no penalties being assessed,” the statement added.

A spokesperson for American Airlines said the company was coordinating with the CDC on any required health and safety measures.

“American has told our team members to stay home from work and seek medical advice if they are sick,” the spokesperson said. They added that the company has also introduced voluntary leave options for flight attendants, which gives them partial compensation.

“Bottom line: if our crews are concerned about flying, we have options available for them, that have been agreed upon with the unions that represent them,” the spokesperson said.

Both airlines have also introduced more comprehensive cleaning on their flights. But that has not been enough to alleviate attendants’ concerns.

“We are worried,” said the attendant. “We’re grateful that we can wear gloves and we don't have to pass out drinks. But we still have to collect trash and we’re still around people.”

Donald Trump on Wednesday raised the prospect of halting domestic flights in order to slow the spread of the virus.

“We’re certainly looking at it, but once you do that you really are clamping down on an industry that is desperately needed,” Mr Trump said in response to a question about restricting domestic air travel.

As part of the US Senate’s $2trn coronavirus stimulus package, the airline industry will receive some $50bn in bailout funds. Half of that money will be given in direct grants in return for airlines agreeing to not put employees on involuntary furloughs, the rest will be available for loan guarantees.

More than 250,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus across the US, as of Friday, and more than 6,600 people have died.

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