The head of Australia’s Flight Attendants Association which represents cabin crew at Qantas says her members were told by airline managers not to wear face masks or gloves in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic because it would send the “wrong message” to passengers and wouldn’t look right. Face masks remain optional on the majority of Qantas flights, although the wearing of a face covering is now mandatory on services out of Melbourne.
“We were flying to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing in the beginning and we pushed for masks not only for our international crew for our domestic crews as well,” Teri O’Toole, international division secretary of the FAAA told a Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 on Tuesday.
“We pushed hard for masks and gloves but the pushback we received was enormous. We were told ‘it wouldn’t look right and wouldn’t send the right message to passengers’,” she continued.
At least 47 Qantas flight attendants are known to have tested positive for COVID-19, including at least 11 crew members on one flight who had operated a repatriation flight from Santiago, Chile. At the time, Qantas said there was no evidence that transmission had occurred on one of its planes.
“Evidence from this outbreak and previous outbreaks of respiratory illnesses suggests that the risk of inflight transmission is low,” explained Qantas’ medical director, Dr Ian Hosegood. Instead, he claimed crew members had “almost certainly” become infected during layovers.
Masks and gloves were made available for cabin crew in April although it has never been mandatory for crew members to wear the personal protective equipment (PPE).
“It’s not really being taken as seriously as I think it should,” O’Toole told the committee, noting that only Regional Express has so far mandated the wearing of masks for both crew and passengers.
Since June 12, Qantas has offered face masks to all passengers as part of its Coronavirus ‘Fly Well’ initiative. The airline “strongly encourages” the wearing of masks but Dr Hosegood told the Senate Committee that it was “not appropriate” to force passengers and crew to wear masks on the majority of services where COVID-19 rates are low.
“We’ll take a risk-based approach, upscaling and downscaling as appropriate,” Dr Hosegood said of Qantas’ policy. Passengers and crew must wear face masks on services out of Melbourne where significant community infection has been detected.
Qantas also provides sanitising wipes for passengers, has enhanced cleaning protocols and has introduced a simplified service to reduce interaction between crew and passengers.
In June, Garuda Indonesia faced a backlash after the airline’s chief executive suggested that cabin crew would be banned from wearing face masks because passengers were unhappy they couldn’t see the crew smiling and likened the inside of some planes to a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit.
Instead, Irfan Setiaputra wanted crew to wear face shields so passengers could still see their faces but the airline quickly backtracked on that suggestion and said cabin crew would continue to be required to wear masks that cover both the mouth and nose.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.