'People, I swear, look at me like I have the plague': Flight attendants say airlines failing to protect them

Attendants for all three major Canadian airlines have told CBC and Radio-Canada they’re being asked to behave as if it’s “business as usual” while they’re on the job. 

Airline crew members left off essential services list for free daycare, despite facing social shunning

Flight attendants say not enough is being done to protect them or the public from COVID-19, and they say they and their families are being shunned by service providers. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Flight attendants are on the frontline in the fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus, yet they say they are being left to fend for themselves by their employers, and off duty, they and their families are being treated like pariahs.

Attendants for all three major Canadian airlines have told CBC and Radio-Canada they're being asked to behave as if it's "business as usual" while they're on the job. 

They say unless the airlines and the government impose extra measures to protect them and help them protect others, they and passengers are at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.

"We feed people, handle their credit cards," Marie, an Air Transat flight attendant, told Radio-Canada earlier this week.

"What do we do with a passenger who has symptoms on board? Can we ask him to wear gloves? Can we ask him to wear a mask?"

CBC is withholding the flight attendants' real names as they fear reprisal from their employers. 

Air Transat issued a statement Monday saying the "health and safety of our staff and customers are our top priority" and defends its practices, saying they are keeping with federal and international guidelines.

WestJet gave CBC a similar response. Air Canada did not return requests for comment, however, the airline says on its website that it, too, is responding to the crisis appropriately.

But among flight crews for all three airlines, there is a growing sense of panic, according to those with whom CBC and Radio-Canada have spoken and the comments of others in private Facebook groups.

'Running out of supplies'

"I flew Friday after the first announcement by (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau, and nothing had changed," Claire, an Air Transat attendant, told Radio-Canada earlier this week. "The toilets were not disinfected more often. There was a shortage of masks."

Martine, an Air Canada flight attendant for more than three decades, said despite the protective measures the airline said it was taking at the start of the month, "we are already running out of supplies and are short of masks."

She said she was aboard an A330 in which the water supply had been shut off because of a problem. "We wore gloves, but there was no water for washing hands."

The coronavirus outbreak has led to border restrictions and flight cancellations around the world. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

"We received a call to inform us that one of our passengers had tested positive for COVID-19," wrote a self-described WestJet employee on the union's Facebook group.

"We were not placed in quarantine. I have no symptoms, but I understand that I can still be contagious for 14 days. I am worried about being able to pass it on to my friends, family, or any other flight I have to work on."

No self-isolation, flight attendant says

Jay, an Air Transat flight attendant with many years' experience, told CBC that she and her co-workers have access to hand sanitizer and latex gloves, but staff have been told not to wear the gloves except to pick up garbage.

Jay said attendants should be allowed to cut back on in-flight services to reduce interaction with passengers — especially on the full inbound flights returning to Canada right now.

"Why am I grabbing a sandwich and giving it to the passenger and grabbing his credit card and serving another person?" she asked. "This is cross-contamination. How far will we go until someone realizes, 'Hey, we've got to stop service.' It's enough."

A key issue for her is that the airlines are not providing guidelines on how to behave back in the community, despite their repeated possible exposure to infected passengers. 

Marie, another Air Transat attendant, also said the directives from the federal government remain unclear.

"We're not automatically subject to quarantine when we return from a trip for work," she said.

Jay said while there are no rules about isolating herself once she is off the job, she is staying away from her own children for now. She, at least, is in her own city. She said she has colleagues stuck in countries all over the world.

"They have to self-isolate in hotels. The cities are shutting down slowly, and they're stuck there. And the company is not necessarily in contact with them," she said.

"And there is the shunning."

"My neighbours do not want our kids to play together anymore, and they were always at my house or [mine were] at theirs," said Jay.

Air Transat says the company's crews receive Transport Canada-approved training on how to deal with suspected contagious diseases on board aircraft. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

"People, I swear, look at me like I have the plague," said Claire. "We are really discriminated against. Nobody wants to babysit my children."

"There are flight attendants who are denied access to medical clinics, to private daycares. There are flight attendants who are pregnant and who are refused to be seen by their doctor," said Marie.

Airlines defend practices, procedures

Air Transat spokesperson Odette Trottier said in an email that the company's crews receive Transport Canada approved training on how to deal with suspected contagious diseases on board the aircraft and apply strict protocols for their own safety and the safety of passengers.

"We are communicating regularly with our flight crew on measures to be taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19," she wrote. "We strictly follow the recommendations of Canadian and international health authorities."

She said the company is "doing everything possible to avoid contagion: grooming has been tightened, hygiene advice is applied, hand sanitizer for crew and passenger use is available on all our aircraft."

Onboard service has been reviewed, she said. For example, she said, "we have decided to completely stop refilling passengers' bottles and stop refilling used drinking cups."

Trottier said the Public Health Agency of Canada does not recommend the use of gloves. 

"Therefore, we are not recommending the use of gloves other than for the pick-up service," she said. "However, we are not forcing our flight attendants not to wear gloves during any service."

Canadian public health officials and the World Health Organization have also said masks do not constitute an effective protection method for the general population, Trottier noted.

"The masks should be used by a suspected sick person along with the first responder, attending to the needs of the sick passenger," she said.

On its website, Air Canada says it is following all health and safety recommendations in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

WestJet also says its priority is maintaining a safe travel and work environment.

"Our aircraft are loaded with all necessary resources including gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, hand sanitizing wipes," said Morgan Bell, WestJet spokesperson, in an email.

Employees are not required to wear masks, but they may should they choose to, Bell said. She said WestJet, too, has enhanced aircraft cleaning and sanitization procedures.

Flight crews not on essential services list for daycare

On Air Canada's website, the airline provides insight into what is being done to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — following public health protocols.

Air Canada, like others, has a procedure in place if a passenger tests positive for COVID-19. It is the health authority's responsibility to contact passengers and advise them of the situation, the airline says, while it works to disinfect seats in the vicinity of the patient.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents flight attendants for both Air Canada and Air Transat, is asking Air Canada for more protective equipment and to ensure that disinfectants and potable water are available on every flight.

"Reducing physical contact between flight attendants and passengers and in-flight service items is critical, and it is the union's position that all non-essential in-flight service to passengers needs to be minimized going forward," Wesley Lesosky, the president of the Air Canada Component of the CUPE said in a statement.

The union for Air Transat workers told CBC not only should more be done to limit the spread of COVID-19 on board aircraft, but government agencies should be making sure flight crews have access to free daycare services.

The union representing WestJet flight attendants did not respond to a request.

In Quebec, the expanded list of essential service workers with access to free daycare does not yet include commercial flight crews.

with files from Radio-Canada and Antoni Nerestant

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