Should Flight Attendants Be Allowed To Wear Face Shields? American Airlines Says No.

Air travel is safer than most people realize because people aren’t talking that much on board, emitting respiratory droplets, and because of good air filtration. However flight attendants and other workers who interact directly with each other and the public are reasonably concerned – especially as travel bounces up from its bottom, and there are more passengers and more flights.

American Airlines codeshare partner Qatar Airways is one of several airlines now outfitting cabin crew in new PPE uniforms.

One American Airlines flight attendant wrote about her ordeal trying to go above and beyond what the airline has approved as an exception to its uniform policy. It sounds like quite an ordeal, handled badly by the airline (in her telling), and a tough challenge all around.

In her telling she’s been wearing a face shield, which isn’t explicitly approved by the airline. A Boston Flight Service Manager approached her about it and told her “it is not part of the uniform.” She says she flew with someone who was positive for the virus weeks earlier and wanted to take every possible precaution to protect herself, especially since not all passengers are complying with mask requirements and since she doesn’t wear glasses or other eye protection.

She reports being told that if she doesn’t feel safe, take leave. The airline wants to reduce head count. But she can’t afford to take the leaves being offered. She apparently became quite the cause célèbre,

I went along with my duties for the rest of the flight then on to Houston where we laid over. The next day on Sunday, May 17th, 2020 we were supposed to deadhead from Houston to Dallas and work the flight back to Boston. I was told that DFW Managers on Duty were talking about me and that Boston Flight Service had called them. Someone was most likely going to meet me at my gate because of my face shield. I was ready for it, but the inbound flight that was to come into Houston had a mechanical. We ended up laying over a second night in Houston and deadheaded to Dallas and then deadheaded back to Boston…

Back in Boston the cabin crewmember’s base manager met her at the gate. She was still wearing her face shield. The manager reportedly told her “[i]t makes the customers feel uncomfortable” and that if she ‘felt very unsafe’ she should ‘take a leave.’

I then told her what I told the Flight Service Manager that the 19 hours are not doable for my expenses and she said that’s what unemployment is for! I told her that I’m not sure I would get unemployment benefits hence why I didn’t put in for the leave because others have been denied. And I didn’t want to collect if I could work!

This flight attendant stood her ground, insisting that she’d continue wearing the face shield, arguing that the airline requires ‘face coverings’ and these are face coverings.

She shared this selfie taken with a passenger wearing a face shield.

In March I wrote about an American Airlines flight attendant risking discipline for wearing a face mask. A manager in Boston left this crewmember a threatening voicemail. American’s official explanation was that CDC guidelines said masks weren’t necessary. They reversed themselves within a day, and now even requires them for customers.

Masks by the way do help but cloth masks are probably insufficient. Disposable surgical masks are better.

Ultimately U.S. airlines – and not just Delta – care about their image. While face masks signal that passengers can feel comfortable, at some point wearing protective gear will send the message to passengers that flying isn’t safe.

I do think that – beyond complying with OSHA-type standards, and without running afoul of discrimination law – airlines ought to be able to project the image they want and tell employees if they aren’t willing to go along with that they should look for other work.

However for the duration of the federal COVID-19 emergency declaration I’d take a relaxed approach to appearance standards to accommodate employee desires for protective equipment that does not pose a challenge for the safe operation of the aircraft.

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. People, people, people. Leave the shields for ICU and ER, they won’t help you especially since you won’t clear or wear them correctly.. The mask will give you the protection you needs. Again, educate yourself about the virus and NOT on social media,

  2. “However for the duration of the federal COVID-19 emergency declaration I’d take a relaxed approach to appearance standards to accommodate employee desires for protective equipment that does not pose a challenge for the safe operation of the aircraft.”

    – pretty much this. I don’t think they should be wearing full face shields since it feels excessive, but the airline could approve some form of eye protection like goggles which would be uniform across employees and could be option for those employees who wish to avail themselves. If the airline doesn’t go along with the idea then she should just buy a pair of fake glasses and wear those. What are they going to say? You can’t wear glasses? Its not a perfect solution but it would give her some eye protection. I do think each plane should have face shields onboard or full safety googles in case a passenger becomes noticeably ill and starts coughing etc.

  3. I am more concerned about this FA’s mask with a VALVE than I am about her almost-worthless face shield. Her mask (presumably N95) will do a good job of protecting her, but it will do little to protect other people. A lot of people make the same mistake and believe that an N95 mask is the gold standard; it is, but not with a valve and being out and about, potentially exhaling your virus through the valve.

  4. Well I’d feel better if she sneezed and was wearing it, lol. If the crew were in a complete moon landing suit, I bet they’d transmit no Sars-Cov2. You’ve seen the shifting recommendations throughout the course of the pandemic to date; no reason they won’t continue to evolve. Granted, it’s hard enough for medical personnel to don and doff safely. But isn’t something not 100% effective better than the nothing that’s 0% effective? I read somewhere (medical literature) that masks prevent one out of 6 infections. Isn’t that worthwhile? Crew wearing protective gear will not make me feel less safe as a passenger.

  5. I’m with @Bill. Goggles would protect her eyes while not looking like she’s preparing for the zombie apocalypse.

    @Tom +1. I didn’t even notice that. There’s some major irony that she’s that concerned about herself but doesn’t care about other people.

  6. Face mask with an unfiltered exhalation valve is the biggest issue here

  7. Why not a full HAZMAT suit? There is, of course, ZERO scientific evidence that any mask or protective gear is actually helpful on an airplane. But that’s not getting in the way of fear. I would note that we were all SO fearful of reopening the economy before the last COVID case was eliminated, but so far there is also zero correlation between reopening and virus spread. Sometimes facts are inconvenient to fear.

  8. Today at Chick Fil-A
    the employees had face shields and masks.
    Some companies care about their employees health.

  9. I would feel safer if FAs wore face shields. If just one is wearing one some pax might think s/he is infected, but if all wore them then it would just be ‘a part of the uniform’.

    I’m glad my dental hygienist wears a face shield, and has for several years.

  10. Leaving the face shields for ER I can appreciate, but a bit too late if aspirations occur inflight.

    Physiological factors sometime overcome the controlled environment.

  11. I think she makes a valid point. I’m working in New York city at one of the hardest hit hospitals. We all wear face shields and masks all day. Imagine how many people these crew come across every day from around the country and world. Flight attendants are source vectors for spreading this disease and shes young so chances are she would be asymptomatic and still working. I applaud her efforts to protect herself and others. The exhalation valve is an oversight mitigated by the shield.

  12. Most airlines outside the us have full protective gear for their flight crews, So why not. In the US?
    Let’s not forget that flight attendants will meet 100s of people per day, as flights are getting fuller, I understand they don)t want to bring anything nasty home yo their families.

  13. The airline does not care for your health as a passenger giving their employees a mask with a valve and trying to prevent them from wearing a face shield.

  14. Absolutely allow any flight attendant with any airline to use face shields . Air Asia has been doing this for quite some time as well as Emirates and others. These carriers really do care about their employees and the travelling public. It does no harm to anyone for them to wear them so why not? What’s the problem if they so choose to do so ? They are in contact with hundreds of passengers daily in a thin metal tube, with extreme close quarters. Again, for those opposed I’d like to know why not ? What’s the problem with anyone if they wear face shields??

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