Health·CBC Investigates

Canadian flight crews demand protective suits as more than a dozen fall ill with COVID-19

More than a dozen Canadian flight attendants have fallen ill with COVID-19, CBC News has learned. The union representing the country's largest airline says crews need better protective gear.

Death of U.S. flight attendant sparks fear, frustration among Canadian crews

A flight attendant for a Canadian airline, whom CBC has agreed not to name, wants more personal protective equipment for air crews during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

More than a dozen Canadian flight attendants are sick with COVID-19, with one recently released from an intensive care unit in Calgary, CBC News has learned.

Many airline crews remain on the job as international and domestic flights continue to take thousands of Canadians home during the global pandemic.

But flight crews and their unions are becoming increasingly vocal in demanding better protective equipment, including protective suits or gowns, and mandatory testing for COVID-19.

"I've asked several times, 'Why are we not wearing hazmat suits?' Other airlines are wearing hazmat suits," a flight attendant who works for a major Canadian airline told CBC News.

"We are on the front line and we are exposed to people from all around the world. We have connections from all over the world."

CBC News agreed not to publish her name or that of her employer, as she is not authorized to speak publicly.

Ukraine International Airlines uses suits and goggles to protect flight crews. (Supplied by a flight attendant)

Protective suits and goggles are now required equipment for crew on Ukraine International Airlines, a measure of how far some in the airline industry are going to protect workers during the global emergency.

Canada's airlines are now required to provide gloves, masks, wipes and sanitizer to employees. Wearing the gear is optional, except when handling food. 

Illness in Canada

Air Transat says four of its flight attendants and one pilot are sick with coronavirus, while WestJet confirms seven employees across the entire company have tested positive, but declined to say how many of those are front-line flight crews.

Air Canada, which has a much larger workforce and operates the most flights, declined to say whether any of its employees had tested positive.

However, sources tell CBC News that a number of Air Canada employees are ill, with clusters in Western Canada and Calgary, where at least one employee had been hospitalized.

In the U.S., a 65-year-old American Airlines flight attendant died of COVID-19 this week, highlighting the risks flight crews face while helping to get passengers home.

Call for protective gowns

Crews on Canadian airlines remain in close quarters in the sky and find it impossible to keep the standard two-metre distance that health officials recommend for the general public.

While regular meal services have been shut down, flight staff still come into close contact with passengers.

"They're walking by me as they're boarding the plane. Definitely isn't a six-foot distance," the flight attendant told CBC News.

Air Canada's main flight attendant union says some of the supplies being provided don't fit properly and that it is time crews be provided with full-length protective gowns.

Wesley Lesosky, president of the Air Canada component of CUPE, says crew members currently do not have the proper personal protective equipment to wear while flying with passengers during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Zoom/CBC)

"We need the equipment; we need it yesterday," said Wesley Lesosky, president of the Air Canada component of CUPE.

"We don't have properly fitted N95 masks, we don't have properly fitted gloves and we don't have things such as disposable long-sleeve isolation gowns that should be made available to our crews."

He said the union looked into the feasibility of hazmat suits but concluded disposable gowns would be easier for crews in tight quarters and pose less risk for contamination and spreading the virus.

In a statement, Air Canada told CBC News the crisis is an "evolving situation" and that as the understanding of COVID-19 increases, the company expects to take additional measures.

But the union is calling on the federal government to move quickly.

"It has to be government intervention to say enough is enough. We need to ensure these people are properly protected. The airlines are trying their best, but obviously it's not good enough," Lesosky said.

WestJet says seven of its employees have COVID-19. Air Transat says four of its flight attendants and one pilot are sick. Air Canada declined to say when asked by CBC News. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) declined to say whether it would mandate protective suits.

"PHAC has provided guidance on hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette and for disinfection and sanitation practices for airlines," a spokesperson said in an email.

'This is what I do'

Numerous flight attendants have told CBC News and are sharing messages with each other on social media that they are proud to be helping during the global health emergency but feel helpless to protect themselves.

The unnamed flight attendant quoted in this story recalled a recent repatriation flight where passengers clapped when the plane landed in Canada and thanked the crew for its efforts during the COVID-19 crisis.

Canada’s airlines are now required to offer crews gloves, masks, wipes and hand sanitizer. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"One man, I'll never forget his face. He ... looked right at me and he said, 'You're my hero!'" she recalled. "I got emotional. I started to cry under my mask."

Such moments make her realize the importance of the role she and her colleagues are playing in getting Canadians home, she said.

"People keep saying, 'Stay safe. You're crazy for doing this.' And I say, 'Well, no, I have to do this. This is what I do. I'm lucky to have a job.'"

Send tips to dave.seglins@cbc.ca

With files from Andreas Wesley

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