NEWS
03/31/2020 14:13 EDT | Updated 03/31/2020 16:42 EDT

Air Canada Won’t Tell Staff How Many COVID-19 Cases Linked To Flights

Flight attendants are left guessing how many of their co-workers and passengers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
An Air Canada Rouge jet takes off at Montreal's Trudeau International Airport on March 20, 2020, as coronavirus infections rise in Canada and around the world.

TORONTO — Air Canada is the only major Canadian airline refusing to release numbers to the public or its flight attendants about how many employees and passengers have tested positive for COVID-19.

Like all airlines, cruise lines and rail service providers, Air Canada is required to post the domestic and international flights with confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, but it’s choosing not to release the number of cases or the roles of the people impacted, according to staff and the union. 

With about 75 domestic and international flights with confirmed COVID-19 cases since March 13, Air Canada has been more affected than its main competitors WestJet and Air Transat, according to the Government of Canada website

It’s a huge, huge, huge concern for our membership based on age and numbers. We want full transparency.Wesley Lesosky, Air Canada union president

Both of those airlines have notified their employees and the public with details about their confirmed COVID-19 cases because “the coronavirus can be picked up by anyone at any point throughout the travel journey or in their daily lives,” said WestJest spokesperson Morgan Bell. 

“Therefore, we are providing information relevant to the appropriate individuals, which is our entire employee base.” 

WestJet estimated that seven employees across the organization have tested positive. 

Air Transat reported five flight attendants, five pilots and four passengers have tested positive, and about 200 staff members are in self-isolation as a result, said human resources vice-president Christophe Hennebelle in an email. 

Last week, an American Airlines flight attendant died of COVID-19. 

Watch: Will the airline industry survive the coronavirus pandemic? Story continues below.

 

Air Canada said in a statement it is compliant with all public health and Transport Canada regulations to limit the spread of COVID-19, making available N95 masks to flight crews, as well as gloves, antiseptic wipes and hand sanitizer. Flight attendants are also only offering bottled water and, to some passengers, pre-packaged food.

It did not say how many passengers and employees have tested positive. 

“Air Canada shares a common goal with its employees of protecting employee and customer health and safety,” the Montreal-based company said in a statement. “We remain in contact with our employees and union leadership on health and safety matters.”

One Air Canada flight attendant, who spoke to HuffPost Canada on the condition of anonymity, fearing job repercussions, said they’d heard of four cases among co-workers. Wesley Lesosky, president of the Air Canada component of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said it’s definitely more than that, but he’s left guessing how many of his members have been exposed.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Travellers wearing face masks line up at the Air Canada check-in counters in Beijing on Jan. 30, 2020.

The lack of information from Air Canada poses a “huge safety concern,” Lesosky told HuffPost Canada. He said the union has repeatedly asked the airline for specifics. “It’s a huge, huge, huge concern for our membership based on age and numbers. We want full transparency.” 

Compared to passengers, flight attendants spend more time with crew members (about eight on average per flight) than passengers. And they likely worked on other flights before testing positive, casting a wide net of potential exposure. 

The flight attendant who spoke to HuffPost said that since late January they’d flown to Asia, Europe and the U.S., including to cities now considered COVID-19 hotspots. They have an underlying medical condition that would make them vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, although they haven’t experienced any symptoms and therefore don’t qualify for testing. 

They said they are not in the financial position to completely self-isolate, so they continue to work, equipped with masks and gloves. 

“It’s stressful before and after [work]. When you’re there it’s kind of, game face on,” the flight attendant said, who is concerned they’re asymptomatic. “I worry about giving it to my [partner].” 

Air Canada said it has a “very robust health and safety program” that is non-punitive for employees who feel unwell and need to stay home. 

Flight attendants are required to assist passengers who show symptoms of COVID-19. Recently, a passenger who didn’t speak English or French was suspected of having the disease, but kept taking her face mask off. The Air Canada flight attendant told HuffPost that they wore gloves and pulled it up over her face continuously throughout the flight — a “bare-bones” response. 

Staff rely on honour system

This situation exemplifies why airports need better screening, said the flight attendant and union. Currently, people are asked to self-assess, and staff rely on the honour system. 

“People are lying. They want to come home, and I get it,” said the flight attendant. “But you’re putting hundreds of people at risk.” 

The union is also requesting flight crews be equipped with full surgical gowns and receive training in how to effectively wear personal protective equipment, said Lesosky. 

Flying is a “highly stressful situation because we’re not trained in a pandemic,” he said. “We are trained in dealing with someone who shows signs of the flu or how to perform primary first aid, but we’re not trained on how to move through an isolation stage on a plane. We don’t have a place to put people.” 

On Monday, Air Canada sent staff an internal memo advising it would be laying off more than 15,000 employees because of COVID-19 that has halted almost all air travel.