When I covered cuts in inflight service at the behest of its flight attendants union which said it was concerned with Covid risk, I pointed out all of the elements of hypocrisy and how this makes the American Airlines product worse. Indeed it needs a better product because it needs to generate a revenue premium to competitors given its relatively high costs and high debt burden.
In some sense American had no choice as a result of broader cultural issues we’re grappling with as we transition from the pandemic to endemic phase of dealing with Covid-19. For American, though:
- It’s odd timing to be cutting service now, as the Omicron wave of the virus has already peaked in much of the country.
- Removing a second drink service from coach on cross country flights may not even reduce the amount of contact between passengers and flight attendants, with passengers having to individually push their call buttons or travel to the galley.
- There remain plenty of inflight service ‘touch points’ like credit card applications, meals in first class where passengers take off their masks and can even sing while they eat if they wish. And crewmember mask compliance is often as much of a problem as passenger compliance.
- Note that neither the airline nor flight attendants union is encouraging flight attendants to wear better, more effective masks or distributing better masks.
- Crew aren’t being told not to go out to restaurants during layovers. The union isn’t asking the airline to end shared bus transportation to crew hotels. They aren’t trying to keep flight attendants away from crowded spaces they are asking for less work while they’re in relatively more protective environments. In other words what an odd focal point for concerns about safety, while maintaining the passenger cabin is one of the safest indoor congregant settings thanks to HEPA air filtration and downward air flow.
American Airlines, though, was being called out on safety and called upon to demonstrate concern for their employees. The airline was being called on to do something performative. And here they’re no different than other large institutions and businesses. They have to look like they’re taking things seriously, because there’s image risk if they don’t. And so we get hypocritical policy because the effectiveness and coherence of the policy is not the point.
Put another way – as someone who celebrates vaccines very seriously, and advocated for flight attendants to be able to wear masks before the airline even allowed it – we’re engaging in a certain kind of Covid theater, and American Airlines is just a player. How much choice did they really have here?
Two years into the pandemic the federal government has started sending out tests, when it’s nearly impossible for people to avoid one of the most transmissible diseases humans have experienced in Omicron. The sheer number of infections has strained hospitals in parts of the country, but on an individual level the risk of Covid-19 has never been lower.
- More immunity from prior infection and vaccination
- Less virulent strain, having difficulty entering the lungs
- Better treatment protocols than early in the pandemic, though effective monoclonal antibodies remain scarce and Paxlovid production is still ramping up
Just looking at how lucky we are on booster effectiveness alone, even as the virus has mutated:
Highlighting the data above are for all ages
Graphs for vaccination vs deaths by age groups (w/o booster partitioned): https://t.co/4k0jK6u34i
— Eric Topol (@EricTopol) January 24, 2022
On the one hand there’s potentially high return to caution in areas where hospitals may be overwhelmed and as a bridge to a time where we may not need to worry so much because everyone’s been infected, nearly anyone who wishes can be boosted, and because highly effective treatments are in mass production (and in the meantime, fluvoxamine which is a widely available and approved SSRI seems to help quite a bit in preventing hospitalization).
On the other hand, there was ostensibly a vaccine mandate for airline employees. Exactly what risk are we protecting them from by doing the first drink service… but not the second?
Ultimately these are the kinds of strange outcomes we’re going to have to deal with as a society. For a long time I’ve targeted the 2022 midterm elections as a focal point for when government policies would need to become less restrictive (Democrats are battling to retain control of both houses of Congress). But the issue is broader.
When, culturally, will it no longer be possible to bully an airline like American (or Alaska) into reducing in-cabin work under the rubric of safety? When will Uber feel it’s ‘safe’ for them to lift the requirement that riders and drivers wear masks? It’s clear that red states largely have no restrictions while restrictions continue apace in places like California – so we see restrictions lift locally by businesses where doing so comports with local custom, and not in places where it doesn’t. For more nationwide brands we may need to look to California as a bellwether.