People flying sick has been a problem for a long time. Some of that is because of airline policies – it’s costly to change your plans, and a doctor’s note won’t even help you. Much of it is more broadly cultural. We expect people to ‘tough it out’ and colleagues don’t want us to ‘let them down’.
American Airlines has a policy where employees rack up disciplinary points for missing work even when they’re taking sick days provided for in their contracts. As a passenger I don’t want to be on a plane with sick passengers and I don’t want to be on a plane with sick crew. I was even a fan of ‘double masking’ long before SARS-CoV-2!
Airlines need to sell facemasks inflight. Guy next to me hasn't stopped coughing all flight. I'd gladly buy him one. Or two.
— gary leff (@garyleff) March 6, 2016
Airline policies and broader work policies and cultural practices make other people sick. The pandemic makes this all more top of mind but it’s been an issue for a long time, we’re just now open to thinking about it and re-thinking it.
My boss (at my day job) thinks sick days should pay more than work days, so that people take their sick days.
- Some people will take sick days for other reasons, and still work when they are sick.
- But if even some people use their sick days when they are sick that’ll reduce workplace transmission of illness.
- The idea is to get people to use their sick days, and eliminate the stigma against calling in sick. Taking sick days becomes rewarding, rather than a sign of weakness.
Employers can reduce pay for non-sick days slightly to compensate so that the total compensation package doesn’t change. The idea doesn’t have to be about paying workers more, just about changing the incentives and culture around going to work sick.
How do we do this for airlines? Elimination of change fees on basic economy tickets helps a little, though basic economy passengers post-pandemic waivers will lose all value of their tickets if they don’t want to fly sick, and everyone else will still have to pay the difference in fare to fly the next day or two days later (hopefully postponing a trip by a week will still mean low fares are available).
Airlines need to screen people for illness – workers and passengers – in order to protect others. I’d fly an airline that did a better job proving me with a safe environment. And by the way, enhanced cleaning measures need to stay post-pandemic. They may be mostly theater against Covid-19 but they’re highly protective against other viruses.
But what happens when someone is sick? We don’t want them to have to feel like they can’t raise their hand and say so, taking an aspirin to bring down and hide a fever for instance. What can airlines do to make it easier to reschedule travel (or work, for employees) when sick – without being the ones who bear all of the cost?
Before the pandemic the CDC actually recommended foregoing travel if you had a fever over 100 degrees and other symptoms, but a fever alone wasn’t reason to cancel a trip in their medical opinion. And about half of people said they’d fly even if they had the flu. That really needs to change.