The largest flight attendant union in the United States has rejected calls to shorten the isolation period for crewmembers who test positive for COVID-19, arguing that any decision on recommended isolation periods should be “based on science, not staffing, and they should be made by public health professionals, not airlines”.
In the last few days, both Delta Air and jetBlue have written to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asking the federal agency to reduce the recommended isolation period for COVID positive flight attendants by as much as half.
Delta chief executive Ed Bastian has called on CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walenksy to release fully vaccinated airline staffers from COVID isolation within just five days of a positive test. The early release, Bastian claims, is necessary to keep the airline running because so many employees are being infected with the highly transmissible Omicron strain.
On Christmas Eve, Delta was forced to cancel more than 100 flights due to staffing woes. The Atlanta-based airline said it had exhausted every alternative but just couldn’t find enough healthy staff able to keep the airline running. United Airlines faced an even worse staffing shortage, cancelling more than 150 flights due to a spike in sickness rates.
But the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) which represents crewmembers at United and 16 other carriers across the United States says shortening the isolation time is not the answer.
Sara Nelson, dubbed America’s most powerful flight attendant, writes to Dr Walensky urging caution:
“The current climate in the passenger cabin is highly stressed. We are experiencing a record high number of aggressive passenger incidents, many of which are fueled by alcohol and refusal to comply with onboard mask rules. Staffing flights with crewmembers who may still be symptomatic, infectious, or both by shortening them on necessary isolation time will only make the situation worse.”
“Flight attendants should not be expected to return to work until they test negative and do not exhibit symptoms. We do not know if 10 days represents that ‘magic number’ but we do not see the justification for reducing the number of days at this time,” the letter continues.
Ed Bastian has called for the isolation time only to be slashed for essential workers who test negative on day five, allowing crew who remain COVID positive to stay in isolation.
Trade group Airlines for America, which represents the likes of American Airlines, Alaska Air and Hawaiian, as well as Delta, United and jetBlue, has also called the CDC to “reassess” the 10-day isolation period in favor of a shortened five-day quarantine for fully vaccinated essential workers who test themselves out of isolation.
“We need the CDC to err on the side of caution by ensuring a suitable number of isolation days so that people who remain either infectious, symptomatic, or both are not circulating and infecting others,” Nelson counters.
On Thursday, the CDC agreed to lower the isolation time for healthcare workers to just seven days but has so far refused to budge on guidance for other workgroups.
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.