Airline workers call for more COVID-19 protections

Baggage handler on tarmac with face mask.

Airline workers, like their counterparts at groceries, meatpacking plants, warehouses and ground transportation companies, are worried employers are not doing enough to protect them from infection.

Even though airlines only have skeleton operations because of the coronavirus crisis and many workers are on unpaid leave, others are needed to fly the planes, tend to passengers in the cabin, load baggage and process cargo. Airlines insist they are following best practices for preventing spread and disinfecting surfaces to protect customers and employees.

On Monday, Steve Dickson, the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, led a call with the airline industry and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discuss the updated health guidance for air carriers and crews that the FAA issued Friday. According to a readout provided to FreightWaves, he stressed the importance of complying with the updated guidance and the FAA’s willingness to continue to work with carriers to implement it.

An airline industry source who listened to the call described it as a “pep talk” that didn’t involve much two-way interaction.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) is not satisfied. For three weeks it has urged the FAA to make the guidance mandatory and issue penalties for noncompliance. It says carriers are not consistently following the recommendations for disinfecting the cabin and notifying cockpit crews when they have come into contact with co-workers who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Dickson has told ALPA that the FAA “is not a public health agency” and can only recommend airlines follow CDC guidelines since it doesn’t have rules of its own to enforce.

The union says three member pilots have died so far and more than 250 have been infected. It has not identified any of the pilots who died, out of consideration for the families, but the Los Angeles Times reported Monday that a pilot and two flight attendants at JetBlue have died.

“We are refraining from publicly outing the problem airlines as it’s our top priority to work with them and resolve any issues for our members,” ALPA spokeswoman Corey Kuhn said in an email.

Members are complaining of problems at several airlines:

  • A lack of clear information about the cleaning process or materials provided;
  • Multiple cleaning contractors that use different disinfectants;
  • Use of disinfectants or wipes without the required alcohol content;
  • Inconsistent processes for cleaning the cockpit;
  • Cockpits reported as “cleaned” when they are visibly dirty;
  • Inadequate amounts of hand sanitizer in the cockpit;
  • Not instructing crew members of the 48-hour self-monitoring period when they come into contact with a positive person or informing them in a timely manner when they might have had contact.

The ALPA pilots are asking for disinfectants made with at least 70% alcohol even though CDC guidance calls for a minimum of 60%.  Some airline industry officials say that notifications have to be carefully balanced against privacy rules.

The Transport Workers Union of America, an AFL-CIO affiliate, on Friday asked Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to require masks for all passengers and workers using the airline, public transit and passenger rail systems in the U.S. More than a dozen medical experts from the U.S. and other countries signed the letter.

The Association of Flight Attendants has called for a halt to all leisure travel that puts airline workers at risk. Passenger flights should be limited to essential service for moving first responders, medical professionals and people seeking treatment unrelated to the pandemic, as well as freight and mail. 

Airlines and their trade associations say they take worker health and safety very seriously. Members of the Cargo Airlines Association go beyond CDC, FAA and World Health Organization recommendations, President Steve Alterman said.

“The safety and well-being of our passengers and crew is — and always will be — the top priority of U.S. airlines. Since the onset and throughout the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, U.S. carriers have closely followed and complied with all health and safety rules, as well as CDC and FAA guidance provided to airlines for passengers and crew, and will continue to do so,” Airlines for America said in a statement provided to FreightWaves.

Delta Air Lines is providing face masks to employees interacting with ill customers and encouraging them to bring a face mask for their own protection, according to its website. The company also says it is expanding temperature screenings for workers; temporarily blocking seats around jump seats, where flight attendants are often seated, to allow additional distance between crew members; providing hand sanitizer in workstations and lounges; offering sanitizing wipes and gloves on board; and cleaning flight decks daily as part of an enhanced cockpit cleaning program. 

By May, the carrier will fog every flight with the same electrostatic disinfectant spraying initially conducted on international flights in February.