Flight Attendants Getting COVID-19 At Lower Rate Than General Population

Filed Under: Misc.

It’s now being claimed that flight attendants are getting coronavirus at a lower rate than the general population. While it might seem counterintuitive at first, maybe there’s some merit to it?

Flight attendant coronavirus risk

We’re seeing both airline management and unions claim that flight attendants are getting coronavirus at a lower rate than the general population.

Just this week United Airlines’ CEO, Scott Kirby, said the following:

“At United, but also at our large competitors, our flight attendants have lower COVID infection rates than the general population, which is one of multiple data points that speaks to the safety on board airplanes.”

Then Delta Air Lines’ CEO, Ed Bastian, said the following:

“If the experience of flying was not safe, you’d expect our people to get sick. We track the health of our people. Our people are meaningfully less infected than the general population.”

Here’s the data used to support this claim:

  • There are around 122,000 people in the US employed as flight attendants, and just over 1,000 have tested positive for coronavirus, for a 0.8% incidence
  • There are 330 million people in the US, and there have been 6.6 million coronavirus cases, for a 2% incidence

That suggests flight attendants are getting coronavirus at only around 40% the rate of the general population.

As Sara Nelson, the President of the Association of Flight Attendants, describes these statistics:

“I really want to applaud our airlines and our airports who have really stepped up. I think all of that is evidence that the policies that have been put in place and the practices that have been put in place have helped to really decrease the risk of spreading coronavirus and in a lot of ways really control it in air travel better than on almost any other place in our communities.”

What could this be attributed to?

First of all, I think it’s worth acknowledging that this isn’t a peer-reviewed study. Rather this is the internal data that airlines have on employees.

While there are 122,000 flight attendants in the US, many of them have been flying very limited schedules. While I imagine they’re supposed to report cases to the company, I also wouldn’t be surprised if not all cases were reported correctly, especially in situations where flight attendants didn’t have any flying on their schedule.

I still expect that this data is at least close to being accurate. This is also a good reminder that if you’re scared or cautious about traveling, it’s probably not the flight you should necessarily be concerned about.

When the pandemic started, the thought of getting on a plane sounded terrifying, since people don’t usually put “airplanes” and “great air quality” in the same sentence. But that perception is hopefully starting to change due to a few factors:

  • The HEPA filters that airlines use are really good, and fully circulate air every few minutes; this is better than just about any other indoor space you’ll find yourself in
  • As much as we hear stories suggesting otherwise, airlines do a better job enforcing mask policies than just about any other businesses where proper distancing isn’t possible
  • When you consider that tens of millions of people have flown since the pandemic started, there are very few cases traced to planes
  • Passengers should be most concerned about the risk of everything else when traveling, including airports (particularly security checkpoints, jet bridges, and bathrooms) and what they do at their destination

Based on that you may not be surprised to learn that flight attendants have average cases, but how do they have significantly below average cases? I’d speculate that it probably comes down to mask awareness, even beyond the job:

  • Airline employees have been doing a phenomenal job wearing masks correctly, in my experience, much more so than those in any other line of work
  • Flight attendants understand the importance of masks, and probably take those precautions even when not flying, since they get so used to it

Bottom line

Data shared by airlines and unions suggests that flight attendants are testing positive for coronavirus at a rate that’s less than half of that of the general population. While I wouldn’t assume the data is 100% accurate, I do think it’s generally true.

That further supports that flying with proper precautions is fairly low risk, and it probably also reflects that flight attendants are more likely than others to follow best practices even when not working.

What do you make of this data?

Comments
  1. Again the mask bullsh*t? Spain and France have made masks mandatory even outdoors – and now they’re having a lot of covid cases. Masks do NOT make any difference, just compare the infection rates of Spain/Japan/Brazil/France with Estonia/Norway/Finland/Sweden/Belarus. There is not even a single peer reviewed study that would prove the efficacy of wearing masks in normal situations, outside of healthcare facilities.

    I recommend reading this article – it’s in Swedish but google translate shall be enough.
    https://www.aftonbladet.se/debatt/a/e82oeM/krav-pa-munskydd-har-blivit-en-masspsykos

  2. This wouldn’t pass scientific muster. There’s too many variables. The low rate of infection could be from a variety of other reasons. To chalk it up to a safe working environment could be misleading. Also, it would help to put it in context. What’s the infection rate for First responders? Teachers? Office workers? If their rates are lower, then perhaps it isn’t all that great.

  3. @Johan – So don’t believe all the leading scientists of the world, but go all in on a Swedish article? Totally reasonable.

  4. If the flight attendants are being regularly tested (whether symptomatic or not) this is a nonsense data comparison.

    The US population is not as a whole being regularly tested.

  5. Testing. Delta has virtually instant testing for the FAs and airport staff, so if someone has it, they know fast and don’t spread it. Could also be a factor.

  6. @ Reaper — Unfortunately for the most part US airlines aren’t doing much employee testing (though Delta is better than others). But to step back a second, if they were being frequently tested, shouldn’t that increase the number testing positive (due to asymptomatic cases), rather than decrease? So it wouldn’t explain why they’re testing positive less often.

  7. You know the unions are doubling down on the “modified inflight offerings” aka sitting on the jumpseat and chatting with coworkers for the entirety of the flight. Think of all the colds, flus, respiratory diseases as well as potential physical assaults and potential serial harassment that could possibly come from being in proximity of the filthy passengers going forward. Much safer to stay in the galley. Maybe even install a cockpit-style locking door at the galleys. Think quality inflight “service” is ever coming back……not if AFA can help it. Hey, we’re all in this together!!!!

  8. @Ben, if they’re not doing regular testing the my observation is moot, but consider that *most* people in the US (flight attendant or not) are not COVID positive at any one time.

    In the general population, a certain segment of those tested have self selected themselves because they’re symptomatic. That will increase the positive test rate.

    In a regularly tested group, there is no self selection, everyone is always being tested regardless, which means proportionally more negative tests.

    To your comment, heavy testing will always find *more* positive tests, but not a higher % of positive tests.

  9. Possibly because the general number includes the elderly that are much more susceptible to COVID 19, specifically having acute symptoms. Yes there are some older flight attendants (age 65 and over) but they are few in number and are in general in good physical shape. An 80 year old with severe mobility issues (needing some assistance with walking) isn’t working a flight.

  10. I know anyone can get COVID-19 but my understanding is there’s a higher likelihood getting COVID-19 if you’re over a certain age.
    I believe most of the flight attendants working right now are the junior/younger members so that data makes sense to me. After all the furloughs are done and the senior/older flight attendants start flying again I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a rise in COVID-19 cases amongst flight attendants.

  11. Masks work. If you think they don’t, then insist your doctor not to wear one the next time you have a medical procedure.

  12. @Johan It’s funny you say that since all the countries with mandatory masks requirement have a lot less cases than countries that. Look at countries that began the requirement from day 1 like Taiwan/Singapore.

  13. Maybe its because flight attendants have a stronger immune system than general population? If you regularly get exposed to various viruses, you eventually gain immunity.

  14. They are basing their incident rate on the number of people who have tested positive compared to the number of people who were flight attendants in 2019. There is no indication given the severe reduction in flight schedules that the employment numbers in 2019 are indicative of the number of people currently working. We know, because airlines have reported it, that they have furloughed and laid off workers by that thousands which means that the 2019 data is completely incorrect for the current situation. Therefore, the prevalence rate you claim is completely unsupported and is not indicative of the actual rate in any fashion. So any comparison to national averages is worthless.

    There is also a no indication of what the testing rate is for those who are working, whether it includes contact tracing or asymptomatic testing, what the testing rate is compared to the general public. In other words, no competent scientist would look at the data and come to the conclusions that you and the airlines are claiming and believe that they are supported by the evidence.

    Let’s pretend that the data does support the prevalence rate comet even though it does not. We need to ask questions about the people who are employed in the industry. They are on their feet for long hours day, they are in constant contact with other people. Chances are this is not a job which attracts those with many significant risk factors. It is not possible to know that from the data provided but it’s a reasonable assumption and one that should be considered. If you do have a population with a lower prevalence of risk factors then the prevalence rate means that a conclusions that they are less at risk still would not correlate with the general public who does have risk factors.

    What about other professions? Not every service industry has the ability to require masks the wave at airlines do. You have higher risk jobs which are part of the prevalence rate in the general population. What happens to that prevalence rate if you remove those jobs and only consider the prevalence rate incomparable positions? Would you still see a reduced prevalence in flight attendants, particularlyafter you correct your prevalence rate to reflectthis actually working?

  15. @George – Here in Southern California where I live, old people are dying at a high rate from COVID but their infection rate is very low relative to the general population. This follows the early days of the epidemic when there were huge clusters in nursing homes, a problem that has been brought under control. The Hispanic population here is four times more likely to get infected, African Americans twice as likely and people between 20 and 29 have the highest infection rate at 25%. Seventy five percent of infections here currently are people under 50.

    I’m glad the crews are wearing masks, it would be horrible if 20% of crews were testing positive.

  16. Flight attendants are staying home a lot. That makes the rate low, not that the airplane and airport environment is better.

    What happens if you subject flight attendants to 8 hours of work per day, 5 days per week? What happens is their Covid-19 rate is HIGHER than the population. My estimation is they are working less than 40% of a full time job. Normalize it to 40 hours a week and they are about 135% of the population. So MORE hazardous (slightly).

  17. Two words: “Confounding Variables.” These two words render moot any musings about HEPA filters, how despite being in a small tube with 300 people, you are safe, etc.

  18. As some have stated, are the observations based on an apples to apples comparison, or are they skewed because of variables that should have been accounted for.

    It’s great news on the surface, but at the same time I wonder how much of it is to just get people to think it’s safe to fly because FA’s are “statistically” better off.

  19. @Reaper You would be right if the equation here was (Positive Tests)/(Total Tests). But the reported stat is (Positive Tests)/(Total Population).

  20. If delta isn’t testing enough then these numbers don’t mean anything, because they can be asymptomatic given the crews tend to skew much younger than high risk populations.

  21. wait, the infection rate certainly only includes symptomatic FAs. and as others have said, most are working part time with schedules still 50% or less of flights operating. PLUS less passengers on those flights, and less in flight meal/snack items.

    I’d roughly factor the infected % and raw # infected at least 4x higher since no airlines are regularly Covid testing their employees.

  22. One of the biggest problem is that someone that “has COVID 19” as per the media hysteria is someone that is sitting in a hospital bed fighting for their lives. From what scientists know right now the majority of people that become infected show little to no symptoms albeit concern that there could be some hidden long term effects. The percentage of the population infected, let alone sub groups, is at this point still an educated guess.

    There’s still the risk that a otherwise healthy asymptomatic person will pass the virus onto at an risk person. The biggest risk I see are the individuals that are elderly and in poor health (evidenced by a wheelchair for example) and are flying with endless abandonment. Maybe some of those trips can’t be helped but when flights are back to having 4-5 elderly wheelchair passengers that isn’t the case. I have to wonder about their risk when flying (and not just on the plane) and the risk of others around them.

  23. @ Bill — I’m not sure I’d agree that flight attendants tend to skew younger on average compared to the population average (or haven’t seen data to support that). Also, I would assume that on average flight attendants are being tested at least as much as the population overall.

  24. Flight Attendants and pilots have much better immune systems. I am a pilot and haven’t gotten a cold or flu in years.

  25. There’s plenty of talk around of existing immunity due to exposure to other coronaviruses such as the common cold, perhaps flight attendants due to the nature of their work have a higher amount of immunity.

  26. I think this proves that anything can be proven with correct manipulation of statistics.
    Same goes for masks work/masks do not work
    isolation works/isolation does not work

  27. What do the unions say? I don’t trust any business’ internal reporting, I’ll take labor or take both and meet in the middle

  28. Ben, thanks for this – although it’s a limited data point it is fascinating.

    I have been pointing out to friends/family for ages that a well-cleaned aircraft is likely far safer inflight than any public indoor space in the ground, and that the real danger points are the public areas of the airport and the travel there.

    Having said that, it’s also true this needs a lot more backtesting to be proved factual, although it seems right. These are people likely to sanitize constantly, wear masks constantly, and breathe filtered air a lot of the time….

  29. @Vijay- No, not all of the leading scientists are not saying this. This is propaganda. And now I’m reading of more malfeasance-most recently by Nashville health department and Mayor claiming false infection data to close bars and restaurants. Liar Mayor. We should be able to fly places and eat at restaurants. Gov’t over reach/lies which have not protected us.

    Regardless, N95 or better masks are very good at blocking smaller particles. BUT, the vast majority of us-me included-can’t get our hands on these masks. These cloth and paper masks we are using are a joke which do not block small particles and hence do not protect me from you, nor you from me.

  30. True, this does not claim to be a valid statistical study. It meerly points out that certain informationour there in government and Cyberland need some de-bunking:

    1. Masks work, period, and I am not speaking of bandanas or cloth psudo masks. I mean a good FDA or NIOSH approved mask stopping 95% of particles (FFP2 standard) and WORN CORRECTLY. 100% masking equals less airborne germs, covid, regular flu or otherwise.

    2. HEPA filters work as well. Fresh air every 3 minutes = good.

    If more of us had good information, this mess would have been over! Let the nay-sayers begin.

  31. As already noted here FAs represent a subset of population with a certain age distribution. One should select that subset from “general population” before jumping to any conclusions. Immune system could be another reason and so is the frequency and duration of exposure. Another simple factor is that a passenger who is not feeling well or has a compromised immune system is less likely to take a flight vs. going to a supermarket to pick up a loaf of bread.
    The recent example of the Covid-19 cases in France and Spain is a simple demonstration that all the administrative “measures” cannot stop an RNA virus. Typically, a virus would mutate and the less lethal and more infectious strains would dominate. This is exactly what we are seeing and this is why the death rate is dropping. The latter has nothing to do with masks.

  32. @gina. Nice pile of steaming lies you’ve leaving here. Got any proof? Drop some links for us.

    The virus that causes COVID is airborne. Masks protect you from inhaling viral particles in the air. That and social distancing are what keep people from getting COVID. Pretty f-ing easy to understand.

    More importantly, masks protect others from the virus coming out of your cake hole.
    Now if we could only mask the public from the stupidity coming off your keyboard, the world would be a safer place. LOL!

    https://emcrit.org/ibcc/covid19/

  33. I work in a hotel with hundreds of employees. Another industry where you would logically expect a higher number of cases due to constant daily contact with travelers. We’ve been fairly busy for yhe last few months. Slower than normal, but busy enough. Interacting closely with travelers from all over. Out of hundreds of employees we’ve had one case of covid.

    Just my personal experience, but it seems to align with this. As others mentioned about flight attendants, I suspect many of us have better immune systems than average due to being exposed to so many people and their various diseases regularly for years.

  34. @Johan – Yes, I agree with you 100% on this.

    @Veejay – Many, and I mean many LEADING doctors and scientific experts from North, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa have spoken against the mainstream “news” Fauci, WHO and co…and they are drowned out by the official narrative, ridiculed and thrown to the side like garbage…careers in tatters for telling the / a truth that goes against the official.

    Yet evidence shows the infections and transmission is not what they are saying.

    I’m sorry, but a Herpa filter is not going to save 20-60 rows of passengers if one person coughs or sneezes…and yet this makes people feel safe and less afraid.

    During this year I flew in Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr (without a mask), Jul, Aug and Sept over three continents…inc in two of the most “infected” countries.

    One cannot live in fear…many laugh at us, yet you’ve all been under home arrest all year 😉 Much love to you all.

    With that said, the third and final Covid marker is November 13th …and the finale (yes after the final) is Dec 21st. Good luck to everyone….most of you don’t care for the truth anyway, and that’s ok too 🙂 😉

    Oops, flight attendants. Well of course their infection rate is small! Even after being stuck in metal tubes with 1,000s of passengers breathing recycled air. Think about it.

  35. Lucky, I know you do not police/censor your comments, and I admire you for that. That said, if there was ever a time to take exception to that policy, it is now. Johan’s comment and linking to anti-mask propaganda actively encouraging dangerous and irresponsible behavior that prolongs and worsens this pandemic should not be tolerated on this blog.

  36. I love how everytime someone proves masks have a little actual effect, someone else suggests banning the debate on the issue. Come on, if you’re so sure about your narrative, you should have no problem to win the debate with good arguments.

    Problem is that actual numbers from Europe show no correlation between mask-wearing and infection rates. In fact, if you order EU+ states by new cases per capita, all mask-free states are in the bottom 12.

    Spain and France have extreme masking policies, requiring them even outdoors, and yet they lead the table with 292 and 166 new cases per 100k over the last 14 days.

    On the other hand, states that don’t require masks in any situation are Sweden (21st place out of 32, 30 new cases per 100k), Norway (22nd, 29), Estonia (24th, 26), Iceland (26th, 19), Finland (29th, 11) and Latvia (32nd, 4). Yes, the best-performing EU state is mask-free. And while most of these countries are seeing some increase in new cases, it’s much slower than in states with mask mandates.

  37. “Adjusted for…” are the key words missing from these analyses. Without adjusting for factors such as number of hours close to other people and for age, the flight attendant analysis is meaningless. As is the mask “analysis” of European countries without adjusting for number of hours close to other people and for mask wearing compliance (not just mask policy).

  38. I agree that comparing two averages (hey, this is not even correlation!) does not prove causation. But the theory is plausible: more strict hygiene procedures than in other industries (including masks, and they way they are worn) combined with HEPA filters which are virtually inexistent in other industries, should do the job.

  39. @spaceman spiff

    The link you provide not only does not give definitive data, but WORSE it describes N95 masks-which I already said are useful; that is not my beef nor is it what I discuss above which you disparage. It is the crappy masks most of us use because that is all we can buy/have. Show me definitive data on how these non N95 masks effectively reduce deaths or real infection? All I have seen are dumb guesstimates or one expert siting another expert. Tragically, experts have been more wrong than right since January. No cold hard science proving these crappy masks almost everyone is wearing saves lives (again, we are not talking N95 or better). None. If you show real data I can be persuaded to change my mind as I am intellectually honest.

    I should not have to spoon feed you-do your own intellectual due diligence. But I will do so. Click on the hyperlink and look directly at the study. https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/04/data-do-not-back-cloth-masks-limit-covid-19-experts-say

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