Should the airlines stop flying during the coronavirus pandemic? America’s flight attendants think so. In recent days, scenes of packed airplanes with passengers not wearing masks have made the news. And while major carriers are allowing passengers to switch seats to help with social distancing, they are not requiring passengers to wear masks or stay six feet away from each other.
The risky situation has prompted a strong reaction from the union of flight attendants, which is calling on the Department of Transportation, in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services, to “end all leisure travel until the virus is contained”—the words of Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), who penned an open letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Health Secretary Alex Azar.
Nelson’s letter points out that flight attendants have been hard hit by the virus. “At airlines employing AFA member flight attendants, at least 250 have tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and flight attendants have died as a result of the virus too,” writes Nelson.
Nelson’s impassioned letter also says that flight attendants are questioning if they are “helping to spread the virus.”
In addition to calling for an end to leisure air travel, the letter makes other requests, including requiring masks in airports and on planes—for passengers, crew and employees. Nelson also indicates that the US should be following the lead of Canada, which is taking much stronger precautions than this country. “Canada encourages the use of masks on all modes of public transport and requires all air travelers to wear masks that ‘cover their mouth and nose … at screening checkpoints, … when they cannot physically distance from others, or as directed by the airline employees,’ writes Nelson. [The WHO guidance is that masks should not be worn for so long that they become damp. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/when-and-how-to-use-masks ]
Nelson’s letter also calls on the US government to do its part. “For air travelers, we recommend that the federal government provide all airports sufficient numbers of disposable cloth or paper masks that are more effective than homemade masks at limiting viral spread,” Nelson says in the letter. “These should be provided free to all members of the public entering airport buildings with the stipulation that they be worn at all times on airport property and on airplanes, and only removed momentarily when necessary for identity verification or food and drink.”
The letter underscores the risks that flight attendants face onboard planes—and beyond. Nelson describes a flight attendant’s schedule, which involves traveling from home to the airport (“often on public transportation”), followed by a bus or shuttle van from the parking lot, then passing by the airport check-in areas, going through security checkpoints, visiting a crew briefing room and heading on to the gate. Onboard, flight attendants provide routine and emergency services while interacting frequently and in close proximity to passengers and other crew members. “On the airplane and at all of these public places, flight attendants come into repeated contact with the general and traveling public,” explained Nelson.
This is not the first time the AFA has called for an end to leisure travel during the coronavirus pandemic. On March 31, the AFA put out a press release asking the Department of Transportation to consider putting a pause on flights. But with this latest missive, the AFA is taking more extreme measures to get their voices heard and to protect flight attendants on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.