Airlines Need To Change To Keep People From Flying Sick

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!

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Obviously the concern for airlines is to price discriminate — getting businesses to pay more for flexible tickets, while offering cheaper fixed-schedule tickets. I feel like there would be an opportunity to build this into the loyalty programs. At a base level you might get so many “free change” passes, while higher elite levels would get more to reflect more flights taken.

    Broadly speaking, I would hope that this experience with telework will help encourage a shift in office culture to stay away when sick. There are two uses for sick leave: protect everyone else in the office, and protect loss of pay for a worker literally too sick to work. Floating “telework days” might be a great solution to address the former while avoiding the stigma of leaving coworkers to pick up the slack last-minute.

  2. I guess some people have that option.

    Me? I put in for time off 6 weeks in advance at work, book airfare, car, room, plan for events happening where I’m going and booking a house sitter for the dogs. Two days before the trip I’m not feeling well. Employer doesn’t care – vacation time gone and whatever events I’m traveling for are going to go on without me, tickets are throwaway now.

    I take a fistful of cold meds and head to the airport.

    Sorry everyone, I book a trip I’m going don’t blame me, blame the system.

  3. Following up, yes, I have traveled sick and my wife has also. A few years ago we trained six months for a marathon, day before we left wife slept all day, didn’t feel too bad at the airport then hours after we land she is really sick. TelaDoc that night, prescription across the street and three days later she was feeling better.

    Kind of a let down, temperature rose so fast they closed about a third of the course because people were dropping everywhere, got in a good 15 ish mile run in though.

  4. Airlines then need to implement temperature checks to stop people like Johnny above , who is determined to travel while sick , not caring about anyone around him

  5. Maybe want to think from a different angle.
    As the number of pax in a plane increases, other risks also increase:
    Number of loonies on board making it necessary to divert the flight and/or physically control the loonie or hijacker.
    Number of sick or contagious people on board.
    At some point there is a trade off where it’s better to use smaller aircraft.
    I suggest that Douglas had it right with the DC3 at 20 pax.

    Other option is broad based flight training like drivers ed, in high school. Maybe going to high school in Alaska has warped my thinking (I thought you had to have a pilot’s license to cash a check at Carrs) but more people flying not relying on public transportation may make a difference.

  6. Work culture definitely pressures people to work when sick. Maybe not in April of 2020, but definitely April 2019 and again now in April 2021. And now in the telework era, I find people feel more pressured to be sitting at their computer at all times, the idea of disappearing for a little while is all but gone.

    I have to travel to meetings set by government agencies. I ‘might’ be able to get a postponement if I have a Dr note, but there’s no statutory guarantee. If I wake up with a fever at 5:00 AM for 6:30 AM flight to get me to a 9:00 AM meeting, I don’t have time to call a doc. I no-show, cost my company money, and I’ve got some splainin’ to do.

    Unfortunately, I think it’ll take a cultural change for everyone to buy in to, not just a few companies, for this to ever change.

  7. The airlines can spearhead the cultural change and override your employer , by simply denying boarding to those with high temperature .

    That way you don’t have to make the excuse to your boss , the airline does it for you . Yeah you might still need to go to the airport to Be denied, but at least you won’t be in the plane infecting others

  8. @Ed check the Disney blogs/ Facebook posts sometime. Common advice is to take aspirin before heading to the parks for the day and have some with you throughout the day.
    Nobody is willing to spend thousands on a vacation and miss it because they aren’t feeling 100%.

    Two years ago people accepted the fact that traveling could get you sick, COVID came along and now it’s a big deal?

    Ive gotten hit also, traveling to Disney, felt great, next day at the parks I visited every bathroom, it happens.

  9. Years ago I was in the middle of a trip when friends’ 1-year olds gave me something evil and I was massively sick. Arrived at the airport with my non-refundable tickets and asked the agent at the service counter if there was anything she could do – I wasn’t continuing my trip and needed to get home. She looked at me, refunded all my tickets and put me on the next plane to Denver. I have no memory of that flight but was *definitely* typhoid Mary to the people on the plane. I’d be shocked if everyone within 10 feet didn’t go down with whatever I had within a day.

    Didn’t even think about it at the time. All I wanted was to get home.

  10. Unfortunately, another issue is the number of children that fly sick, not just with bad colds, but with highly contagious chicken pox and measles. It happens more than people think. There needs to be something in place to address these issues, because too many people just do not care about their fellow paxs health.

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