What United Airlines Is Telling Employees About The Passenger With Covid-19 Who Died Onboard Monday

I believe I was the first to report on the passenger with Covid-19 who died on a United Airlines flight on Monday. Initially the airline tried to wave me off the story. Now they’re acknowledging it.

According to the airline,

Our flight diverted to New Orleans due to a medical emergency and paramedics transported the passenger to a local hospital where the individual was pronounced deceased. We have been in touch with his family and have extended our sincerest condolences to them for their loss.

At the time of the diversion, we were informed he had suffered a cardiac arrest, so passengers were given the option to take a later flight or continue on with their travel plans. Now that the CDC has contacted us directly, we are sharing requested information with the agency so they can work with local health officials to conduct outreach to any customer the CDC believes may be at risk for possible exposure or infection.

According to Taylor Garland, spokesperson for Association of Flight Attendants-CWA which represents United’s flight attendants, the cabin crew went into quarantine on arrival at LAX.

United flight attendants on Monday responded to a medical emergency inflight resulting in a diversion. Upon arrival at LAX, the crew of four Flight Attendants were quarantined for 14 days per written guidelines. Our union continues to provide support to the crew. We urge passengers to comply with airline COVID policies and stay home if you’re sick.

United Airlines flight 591 from Orlando to Los Angeles diverted to New Orleans Monday evening. Passenger overheard the man’s wife telling medical personnel about the man’s Covid-19 diagnosis. Initially neither the flight nor airline were disclosed but I tracked down the only flight to or from Los Angeles (where the report came from) that diverted. United then confirmed this was the aircraft in question.

  • This isn’t United’s fault. Someone with Covid-19 flew despite symptoms and a Covid-19 diagnosis. United makes passengers acknowledge they lack these symptoms in order to fly.

  • United’s health acknowledgement is useless. As I wrote from the beginning, anyone with Covid-19 or Covid-like symptoms knows not to fly. Anyone who is going to fly anyway isn’t going to be stopped because an app asks them whether they have symptoms.

  • United continued onto Los Angeles using the same aircraft. They didn’t do a deep clean before flying the plane again. Fomites aren’t a primary means by which the virus is transmitted, but with all the effort airlines are putting into sanitizing planes not doing so after a passenger with the virus died on board is shocking. It’s not clear the extent to which the airline understood the role of Covid-19 at this point.

Here is what United Airlines is telling its employees:

It’s sad that the passenger in 28D passed away. It’s rough on his wife, who was accompanying him. On the other hand if he’d been hospitalized she likely wouldn’t have been able to spend last moments with him.

It’s utterly unfair to the rest of the passengers that they were exposed to this man who knew he was sick, and his wife went along too even knowing he was sick, unable to taste or smell, and suffering shortness of breath.

Some are shocked that a person would fly in that condition. Many people wouldn’t but it doesn’t surprise me in the least. Sadly it comports perfectly with my model of human nature.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. “On the other hand if he’d been hospitalized she likely wouldn’t have been able to spend last moments with him.”

    If he had been hospitalized, there is a good chance he would still be
    alive! Instead, they chose to put others at risk while dying on an airplane.

    Life is about making good choices. This was a terrible choice.

  2. Its an unfortunate set of circumstances all around, but it will also be interesting to see whether or not anyone on the flight develops Covid19 as a data point relating to transmission on planes.

    I believe that societally solutions lie in mandatory measures such as required use of the Apple/Android exposure API, a requirement that you scan some kind of health pass when you enter a public accommodation or conveyance, etc.

    People are generally stupid, ignorant, and naive about things for which they do not have individual expertise or knowledge; and I don’t think we are doing ourselves any favors by giving people “freedom,” to not do the kinds of things I listed above. Most people do not have specialized expertise or knowledge about communicable diseases. Also people will often do what is most convenient as in this case of the couple flying with the Covid19 positive.

    We could require testing if you want to fly, visit a restaurant, enter an office building, ride a subway, ride an Uber, etc.

    I don’t see many tangible benefits someone with a privacy concern could articulate for why it would be better public policy to allow the types of freedoms that are causing a demonstrable uptick in sickness and death.

    It is foolish to pretend that a mantra of individual responsibility is going to get us out of this as opposed to mandatory gates (exposure notification tracking, or testing) that could be compulsory if you want to leave your house. I think our approach of relying on individual responsibility can be demonstrated as a failure.

  3. “We could require testing if you want to fly, visit a restaurant, enter an office building, ride a subway, ride an Uber, etc.: This is not feasible as it would basically require almost daily testing. You can be negative today and positive tomorrow. You may test negative if the sample was collected early in your infection and test positive later during this illness. You could also be exposed to COVID-19 after the test and get infected then. Also if you had COVID it is recommended that you do NOT get tested again for a while. And the only test that is fairly accurate is the PCR test.

  4. “I think our approach of relying on individual responsibility can be demonstrated as a failure.”

    Which approach was that?

  5. People are so selfish ! He put so many others at risk . Lot of people do this , they lie about their symptoms to get services . I see it frequently working in healthcare

  6. @Gary, instead of asking passengers to self-assess/report if they are experiencing Covid-link symptoms, wouldn’t it be better if airlines took/required on-the-spot pulse oximeter tests of every passenger before they board? It wouldn’t matter if it’s due to Covid or any other medical reason, if a passenger’s blood oxygen level is low, wouldn’t letting them fly on an airplane with high cabin altitude pressure pose a significant medical risk?

    Pulse oximeter measurements wouldn’t eliminate the need for masks, of course, but they could offer a cheap, objective and instantaneous metric that could help weed out passengers who shouldn’t fly.

  7. Restores my faith in my well-founded opinion that the majority of my fellow citizens have an IQ to match their shoe size and even less of a consideration of their civic responsibilities.

  8. The US is increasingly a banana republic populated by ignorant, obese and impoverished citizens who have no thought of decency nor civic duty

  9. Why does everyone get so upset when someone flies with covid. Thousands of people fly everyday with covid. You are most contagious the 2 days BEFORE you show symptoms. There’s a very good chance that several people on your flight have covid but does not know it yet. Currently there are over 7 million known active Covid cases in the US. There are millions currently infected that do know it yet.

    The airlines can not make flying safe during a pandemic. If you decided to fly then you are assuming the risk. The risk is the same if a person has covid – knowingly or not.

  10. Obviously many people fly everyday with the cooties. Since everybody is forced to wear the magic 2 cent face diapers, it doesn’t really matter because masks supposedly work to stop cooties. Either masks work or they don’t. I know of multiple people that had cooties that still traveled and carried on their lives. If everybody has masks on, does it really matter?

  11. @kelly loeffler — yes, of course it matters. I think you’re just trying to provoke people. Comparing a disease that has killed 250,000 people in the US to cooties is disgusting.
    Masks of course do decrease the risk (duh!), but do not eliminate it (also duh). Somebody with full-blown covid at the height of infectiousness could still infect other people, people they are shedding so many viruses that some could get through the masks. But, the infection is far less likely if there are masks on everyone’s faces — good likelihood that most viral particles are stopped. You most likely won’t get sick inhaling just a few virus cells — it takes hundreds, on average (or so I have read) because most of the viral cells expelled in the air are inactive.
    At some point on the plane, people often take their masks off to take a sip of water or eat something, for example. Also, there are masks and there are masks. The cheap stuff works somewhat, but not as well as a serious KN95 mask. So there are risky moments on a flight.
    Flying with Covid19 could get you sued, and a criminal offense in many countries. If you do this and somebody is infected, they could sue you. If that person dies, there could be manslaughter charges in some places. (just like if you carelessly hit somebody with your car or other situations in which someone through their carelessness kills another person).

  12. I agree. No sympathy from me, the guy was diseased and chose to travel anyways. Not sorry he passed and not sorry for his family – think of the ~100 others on the plane who might get sick and continue to spread this disease. Disgusting.

  13. United is at fault for continuing the flight with the same plane. United was aware that the wife said her husband had shortness of breath and loss of taste and smell. Along with information that cardiac arrest might be involved, which can be caused by Covid-19, that is sufficient to put United on notice that Covid-19 could be involved and make United negligent for using the same plane without any additional cleaning.

    Why the passengers who overheard the wife’s comments would get back on that plane is beyond me.

  14. You know there’s some lawyer out there cooking up a lawsuit against United on behalf of the deceased’s family for the airline’s negligence in allowing the deceased to fly

  15. We flew on United to Hawaii November 6th. I was under the false impression and felt falsely assured that I would be Covid safe on the flight because we had to take a Covid test before flying. When we checked in I was surprised no one asked for proof of my negative test, then assumed they would do it at the gate.when they didn’t I realized that I was not safe on the plane and that United was only complying with Hawaii’s rule that travelers either have proof of a negative test or quarantine… AS IF ! Why can’t the airline add the price of testing to the ticket, and/or require a negative test to get on a plane and get us moving towards more safe travel?

  16. No sympathy from me on this one — the passengers in question were asked if they had symptoms at the time of check in — you must acknowledge or disclose if you do. Obviously the wife telling the paramedic only a few hours later that the husband had no sense of smell/taste and that he had Covid is egregious, selfish and an admission of their providing false information to fly. Had they stayed home, perhaps the husband would have gotten the medical attention he needed to survive.

    That said, a medical diversion costs thousands of dollars and if this couple knowingly flew while contagious, why does United to foot the bill for it? They’re an airline, not a charity. And these people took advantage of them and lied so they could travel. It’s not United’s fault and it was entirely in the hands of these passengers.

    I hope United knows where to send the bill for the cost of diversion.

    Covid taking someone’s life is tragic but it didn’t have to happen this way. If you’re sick and you know it, stay the F home.

  17. @Sue the Wife: another passenger on the flight is already suing United for potentially exposing them to COVID. United didn’t do that, the DECEDENT did.

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