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. The virus though is believed to enter the body not just through the nose and mouth but also potentially through the eyes and even respirator masks don’t cover those.
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.