Update: As of May 1, 2020, American Airlines will require all flight attendants to wear masks.
Oh American Airlines…
As if employees aren’t already concerned enough about job security or their safety, now they also have to worry about being punished for wearing face masks.
American disciplines employees wearing face masks
As noted by View from the Wing, American Airlines seems to be disciplining employees who want to wear face masks. This has come to light because a flight service manager left a voicemail for a flight attendant who operated a flight while wearing a face mask:
“This is [redacted] calling from Boston flight service at 1:15 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon. I know you’ve got a trip this evening, I know it was brought to my attention that you did have a face mask on on your last trip. I just wanted to let you know that we can’t let you come to work with a face mask on. I understand concerns and everything but we can’t be having our flight attendants come to work with a face mask on. Like I said I totally understand what your concerns are. If you don’t feel comfortable coming to work without a face mask, you need to use your sick time or call out that’s totally understandable. I just wanted to let you know prior to coming in this evening as far as what the expectations are on our end.”
To be clear, this wasn’t just an overzealous manager, but this is American’s official policy:
“Masks in-flight or in the terminal is not allowed. We are following CDC guidance: masks are not effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 for the general public.”
Flight attendants are at very high risk for COVID-19
A recent report from the New York Times shows just how at-risk flight attendants are to contracting COVID-19. Aside from healthcare workers, dentists, and paramedics, flight attendants have among the highest risk of getting COVID-19, given the amount of time they spend in confined spaces with others.
That really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. I’d argue airlines aren’t doing nearly enough to protect their employees at this time.
Do masks help, though?
There has been tons of debate surrounding whether or not masks should be worn at this point. In many cases people have been encouraged not to wear masks, which is largely because there’s a shortage of them, and it’s a priority that healthcare workers get them, but also because wearing these masks is most helpful in preventing the infection of others.
However, the CDC’s recommendation to not wear masks is intended for the “general public.” For all practical purposes, airline employees, and particularly flight attendants, shouldn’t be considered the general public:
- Properly-fitted N95 masks (or similar) could potentially help prevent someone from getting COVID-19
- If a flight attendant does have COVID-19 but isn’t yet showing symptoms, wearing a mask could help prevent them from spreading it, which is increasingly important now that we know the lengthy incubation time of this coronavirus, and the number of people who may be spreading without symptoms
- At many airlines around the world flight attendants are now required to wear masks, let alone given the option
Simply put, healthcare workers are told to wear masks, so clearly there’s some benefit to having them when a person’s job is to interact with large numbers of potentially infected people. Surely a distinction should be made between flight attendants and the general public, given that their job is being within inches of hundreds of people, with no sense of where passengers have been previously, and in an environment with very poor air circulation?
Why does American Airlines even care?
I think the big question here is why American Airlines actually cares if flight attendants wear masks or not? Even if it just makes flight attendants feel better, isn’t that enough?
The way I view it, there are two possible explanations.
The first explanation is that American Airlines has strict uniform and appearance guidelines. Obviously that’s not the case. For the past few years American Airlines employees have had all kinds of mismatched uniforms, given that their new uniform was causing reactions for some people. Up until a few weeks ago you had people partly wearing US Airways uniforms from five years ago.
The second explanation seems more likely to me — American is concerned that flight attendants wearing masks will “scare” people. As far as I’m concerned, that’s great — people should be staying home, especially the people who are scared by people wearing masks.
It’s my understanding that both Delta and United are allowing employees to wear face masks, while American isn’t. Telling a flight attendant they shouldn’t come to work because they want to wear a face mask is simply ridiculous.
Flight attendants are at high risk of contracting COVID-19, and while masks are largely downplayed in the US, the reality is that healthcare workers are told to wear them, and flight attendants face many similar challenges.
Flight attendants have enough things to worry about — let them also wear masks if they want to!
What do you think — is American Airlines off base for not letting employees wear masks?