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No running water on Air Canada flight from China during worsening coronavirus outbreak

A 13-hour Air Canada flight from Beijing to Toronto operated without running water as the coronavirus outbreak worsened in China last week. Air Canada says it will no longer operate international flights experiencing water supply issues.

Air Canada says it will no longer operate international flights with water issues

File photo shows washroom on Boeing aircraft. A Beijing to Toronto passenger says there was no running water in the plane's washrooms on his 13-hour flight last week. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

An Air Canada flight took off from Beijing to Toronto with no running water on board last week amid the worsening novel coronavirus outbreak, a move that has angered the union representing flight attendants.

The flight lasted 13 hours and a passenger on board told CBC News the washrooms ran out of antiseptic wipes, meant to replace traditional handwashing, after about four hours.

CUPE, which represents Air Canada and Air Canada Rouge flight attendants, said it would not comment on the matter.  But an internal memo sent Friday to its membership and obtained by CBC News speaks to concerns about the safety of flight attendants.

"Faced with a public health situation in which thorough handwashing with soap and water have [sic] been repeatedly cited as the most important and effective way to protect oneself and others from contracting the 2019-nCov (Coronavirus), it is categorically unacceptable for any aircraft to be dispatched without a fully functional water system."

Memo to CUPE members (CUPE)

"It is the union's position that any aircraft without a fully functional water system ought to be immediately removed and not positioned for operations until such a time as the issue can be corrected — regardless of aircraft type," the memo said.

The union also strongly discouraged members from accepting shifts on flights experiencing water issues in exchange for supplemental compensation, such as a bump in pay.

Air Canada to increase supplies for flights to Asia

In an email to CBC News Saturday afternoon, Air Canada said "the aircraft developed an issue with its water system in Beijing and it could not be repaired quickly locally.

"After careful consideration the decision was made to still operate the flight based on our understanding that customers would rather return to Canada than stay longer in Beijing. The flight was operated in compliance with protocols for such situations."

It noted that the outbreak is an extremely rare situation.

Earlier Saturday, Air Canada sent out a note to staff saying it would no longer operate widebody aircraft with "broad water system issues" on its international routes and that its international flights would carry "ample additional bottled water" for handwashing in case a water system issue occurs in flight.

However, it said it would continue to operate widebody and narrow body aircraft experiencing "limited" water system issues and would ensure there was "ample additional bottled water boarded to facilitate handwashing."

Air Canada also said it would increase the number of masks, gloves, and hand-sanitizing supplies on all Asia flights.

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On its website, the Public Health Agency of Canada advises that all travellers protect themselves from novel coronavirus by washing their hands often "with soap under warm running water for at least 20 seconds."  It says travellers could use alcohol-based sanitizer "only if soap and water are not available."

The agency maintains the risk of coronavirus to Canadians remains low. 

Passenger says flight ran out of wipes

A man who was a passenger on the flight who did not want his named used, told CBC News that he was informed at the gate there would be no water available in the washrooms.  He said while the crew did put antiseptic wipes in the washrooms, they ran out roughly four hours into the flight.

He said he found it "disturbing that Air Canada would allow passengers to fly on a [sic] airplane with no water to wash our hands for over 13 hours, run out of sanitary wipes that were dried out and basically useless."

The flight in question departed Beijing on the evening of Jan. 23, the same day the World Health Organization declared the outbreak to be an emergency in China. It arrived in Toronto at 8 p.m. ET.  The Boeing 777-300 has 10 bathrooms on board. There were three meal services during the flight.

At the time the flight was operating there were about 650 reported cases of coronavirus and 18 reported deaths in China. The next day the number of reported infections jumped to 830 with 25 deaths.  

The World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30.  That same day Air Canada suspended all flights to Beijing and Shanghai.  

If you have a confidential tip you think we should investigate, contact us through CBC secure drop.

https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/ 


 

About the Author

Katie Nicholson

Senior Reporter

Katie Nicholson is a senior reporter with CBC News based in Toronto.

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