Unions and Airline Reps Spar Amid Safety Concerns

After hundreds of Southwest and American Airlines employees tested positive for coronavirus, their respective union spokespeople called for stricter safety measures as well as pressuring airlines to offer exact numbers around deaths and infection rates.

American Airlines' Fort Worth-based flight attendant union, Association of Professional Flight Attendants, reported the second death of a flight attendant due to coronavirus complications on April 7, as well as 100 COVID-positive employees.

Meanwhile, Southwest’s flight attendant union, TWU Local 556, reported that 600 employees tested positive. Southwest, which has a longstanding reputation for high employee and customer satisfaction, stressed that those who tested positive made up "far less than 1 percent" of its 60,000-strong workforce. The airline responded to TWU 556’s demand for exact numbers by stating that releasing the data was a privacy concern.

Regarding the union's call to properly disinfect aircraft in between each flight, a Southwest representative said, "The safety and well-being of Southwest’s employees and customers is our uncompromising priority, and Southwest continues to implement measures to enhance our aircraft cabins, airport locations, and work centers while following all CDC guidelines during this unprecedented time."

The back-and-forth follows TWU 556's letter to the FAA and OSHA Monday that discusses concerns for workers' health and safety.

Airline workers are gaining media attention as unsung heroes of travel during the crisis. As the number of airline trips continues its nosedive, one Reuters photographer took a solo flight, building "camaraderie" with the crew. Barria, the photographer, learned firsthand about airline workers' struggles. Flight attendants face an impossible choice between keeping family members safe from potential contagion and acting as caretakers for those with preexisting conditions. The family safety issue was echoed by TWU 556 president Lyn Montgomery in her comments to the press.

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