Pilots urge FAA to require airlines to follow CDC precautions

To limit coronavirus spread, attendants won't have to sit together in jump seats or don oxygen masks in safety demonstrations, FAA says

A ground crew prepares to unload luggage from an arriving Delta Airlines flight at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.  (John Moore/Getty Images)
A ground crew prepares to unload luggage from an arriving Delta Airlines flight at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Posted April 9, 2020 at 1:23pm

Just hours after the FAA granted flight attendants a reprieve from two long-standing pre-flight practices because of concerns over the coronavirus, the Air Line Pilots Association Thursday sent a letter urging the agency to adopt additional measures.

In a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, the 63,000-member professional pilots' union urged the FAA to “immediately” order airlines to make voluntary CDC guidelines related to flight deck cleaning and sanitation mandatory. 

They also asked Chao to require employees be notified of fellow workers who test positive for the disease. 

“Our members are the key to ensuring the safe transportation of passengers and cargo — and have been responsible for keeping the nation’s economy going in the midst of this global public health crisis,” wrote ALPA President Joseph G. DePete. “The least we can do for them is protect their health and safety.”

The union first made the request to the FAA March 31 but the guidelines remain voluntary. On Wednesday, FedEx reported that one of its pilots died from COVID-19.

“It is imperative to make CDC recommendations a requirement immediately, not tomorrow, not next week,” DePete wrote. 

That request came shortly after the FAA agreed to ease regulations requiring flight attendants to demonstrate how to use life preservers and oxygen masks before takeoff in order to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In a six-page order responding to a request from trade group Airlines for America, the FAA also said it would allow flight attendants normally forced to share a jump seat during takeoff and landing to instead sit in passenger seats near the exits in order to abide by the social distance guidelines recommended to avoid the spread of the disease.

Proximity

The relocation, the FAA said, will help flight attendants “comply with recommendations from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concerning proximity to other people.”

Airlines for America contacted the FAA after expressing concern that a shortage of disinfectant wipes would “place crewmembers in the position of donning and demonstrating the oxygen masks and life vests during passenger briefings without having the equipment properly disinfected prior to each briefing.”

[Virus exposure risk scares transport workers, threatens supply chain]

Flight attendants, whose job virtually always requires some level of contact with the public, have been hit hard by the coronavirus, with a Philadelphia-based American Airlines flight attendant dying last month and an American Airlines flight attendant based in St. Louis dying this week of complications from the virus. Hundreds of Southwest and American Airlines flight attendants have tested positive for the virus, according to the unions that represent them.

“The FAA finds that granting this exemption supports the continuity of air transportation, which is essential in this national emergency,” the exemption read.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a union representing 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, backed the request and applauded the waiver. Sara Nelson, president of the association, said the exemption will ensure that flight attendants “can safely social distance while performing our critical safety duties and demonstrations.”

In a press call earlier this week, Nelson urged passengers to hold off on leisure travel until the pandemic is over.

The waiver occurs even as the Transportation Security Administration marked a grim benchmark, reporting only 94,931 travelers went through TSA checkpoints nationwide on Wednesday — an all-time low since the pandemic hit. By contrast, 2.23 million travelers went through TSA screening on the same weekday last year.

TSA screening officers, too, have been hit by COVID-19: The TSA reported that 42 screening officers have tested positive for the coronavirus. In all, the agency has had 327 employees, both screeners and non-screeners, test positive for the virus. Two have died.

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