Flight Crews: An Overlooked Link in Outbreaks

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It’s been 10-ish years now, at least, that the world has been fretting over the next pandemic. We’re overdue for one, according to some experts, and more mobile than ever. I’ve wondered about this before — during SARS, avian and swine flu outbreaks — and I’m thinking about it again today with Ebola: Are flight crews an overlooked weak link?

I remember well, during the swine flu days, receiving that letter in the mail — the one informing me that one of my passengers from a few days prior was a confirmed case. I wasn’t being quarantined, but I was asked to watch for symptoms. That was fun. Nothing came of it (I say with an extra dose of “thank goodness,” because I was already staying at a home with small children by the time I received the notice).

When they were doling out Tamiflu, I wondered why flight crews weren’t included on the list of groups to be considered for a dose. We may not be as vital of a population as doctors, but I should think our potential to unwittingly spread something infectious is pretty outstanding. Had I been infected, how many hundreds of people could I have potentially passed the virus to? How many countries could I have spread it to before that letter arrived?

Anyone who has read anything on Ebola knows that, in terms of likeliness to spread, it’s not in the same league as illnesses like avian or swine flu. However, its virulence and Hollywood-sounding symptoms (even the word “hemorrhagic” sounds awful) make up for the difference. Ebola is, put simply, freaky stuff.

The good news is that Ebola isn’t easy to catch. It doesn’t spread through coughing or sneezing like influenza does. The bad news is this outbreak is racking up firsts like it has a Type-A personality. Even trace amounts of a carrier’s bodily fluids are said to be dangerous. On an airplane, that’s not something to dismiss, especially for crew members. Onset Ebola looks a lot like various, non-panic inducing illnesses, such as malaria or the flu, and if a passenger collapses or vomits, crew members will be the ones administering treatment and dealing with containment.

As if to make a point on my recent thoughts, after 10 magical years without a single passenger throw-up situation, this month has served up four flights with vomiting incidents. I’ve had plenty of fresh opportunity to watch how these things go down. A relatively hard to spread disease like Ebola may be comforting to the general public, but as a crew member, the risk of exposure while aiding a passenger is significant.

Ebola is merely being used as an example here, being both current and supposedly low-risk to the population at large. The question is: Are flight crews a group whose potential to spread infection needs to be taken more seriously?

When the swine and bird flu fears peaked, many of my colleagues began wearing rubber gloves while picking up service items in the main cabin. Officially, gloves are not permitted, but no one ever confronted us and many flight attendants have continued to use them. The airlines seem to be ambivalent. When I asked around, flight attendants at my company reported gloves were “not allowed on domestic flights.” Someone in management told me the use of gloves is, “at flight attendants’ discretion.” I double-checked our manual and found that the policy states that, “gloves are not permitted in view of customers at any time.” Outbound international flights, however, are now catered with a full box of gloves.

I don’t use gloves myself, yet I’m conflicted. Should I be? I just don’t like them, and I’d prefer to vigilantly wash my hands instead. Many of my colleagues only wear gloves for the meal service pick-up, and I figure if you’re going to wear them at all, you need to wear them most of the time for them to be truly effective. Regardless, we are all — airlines and crew — feeling our way in the current age of infectious concerns.

What do you think? Would you wear gloves if you were a member of the flight crew? Does seeing them on an attendant negatively impact your perception of the airline? Or do you believe the possibility of crew members contracting and spreading a disease isn’t likely?

[Photo: iStock]

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Comments (Showing 4 of 4)

  • Doc Savage at 8:02pm August 01, 2014

    If there is a question of contact with body fluids, you should always wear gloves.

    It is likely that flight attendant Gaetan Dugas was responsible for spreading HIV to a large number of people during the early AIDS epidemic. He should have worn gloves, as well.

    Luckily, currently Ebola is not thought to be transmissible by a symptomatic carriers, and requires contact with infected body fluids. Let’s pray that doesn’t change.

  • Tanya934 at 8:03pm August 01, 2014

    I work in a residential home and we are required to use PPE at all times, especially when serving food. I feel for the flight crew’s own personal safety and for the other passengers, gloves and disposable aprons should be the norm. It not only keeps their clothing being a carrier for bugs down to a minimum but shows that the airline is being pro active in helping to prevent the spread of any contagious diseases.

  • oktoberfest at 3:37am August 02, 2014

    I wouldn’t mind seeing them. I’d feel safer thinking maybe I wouldn’t be catching something from you.

  • SSteegar at 3:05pm August 03, 2014

    In a private conversation, a reader pointed out something I should clarify. The rumor that gloves might be permitted “on international flights” is a matter of those flights having full meal service – whereas domestically there is, in Main cabin, only drinks.

    It is still, in fact, and arbitrary line, but the thinking is that there are way fewer service items passing between crew and passengers that could be harboring germs.

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