Galley Gossip: Swine flu on the airplane (a few things you can do)

Today I’m flying from Los Angeles to New York to start my reserve rotation for May. I’m bringing my son along with me. He’s two. Because my husband travels on business often and I’ll be on-call, my son will be spending eight days with grandma and grandpa. Oh sure I’ll take the train out to see him in-between trips. That’s not the problem. The problem is with all this talk about swine flu, I can’t help but be a little nervous, not for me, but for him!

We’ll be traveling by plane and in New York where 75 people in Queens were recently diagnosed with the disease. Did I happen to mention my crashpad is in Queens? I’ll have zero control over where I’m going and how long I’ll be there. When I voiced my concerns, here’s what a few of my friends had to say…

  • “Heather, I think there’s a Mexico City layover with your name all over it! Hee, hee!”
  • “Don’t think you have to go to Mexico, Mexico will come to you. Start a new trend, nothing is hotter than a flight attendant with a Michael Jackson mask on! If you rock the body condom from the movie Naked Gun, I want to be there!”
  • “Every time I wake up in the MEX layover hotel I breathe a sigh of relief that I wasn’t crushed in an earthquake overnight. Now if I can just not breathe while down there . . .
  • “The only other thing you need besides a diagnosis is a company that’s not completely irrational and predatory about sick leave use. The company has denied me sick time, garnished pay for the days missed, and said to the union, “grieve it,” which is a years-long process.”
So what am I, the flight attendant, required to do if I see a passenger who may be exhibiting swine flu like symptoms?

  1. Isolate the person as much as possible.
  2. Contact the airline physician on-call. What I would actually do is call the cockpit who would then contact the ground who would then pass along important information.
  3. The airline I work for is providing extra gloves and thermometers for flight crews to use, as well as masks for passengers who may be infected.

Please note: As of April 26 there have only been mild cases of swine flu reported in the United States and most people have made a full recovery.

As of today, Argentina and Japan are the only two countries I’m aware of that are taking action. If you are flying into Argentina, all passengers and crew will be required to fill out a form that ground personnel will be distributing in order to enter the country. If you are traveling into Japan, all passengers and crew will be quarantined. That means passengers and crew will be required to remain on board the aircraft until Japanese health officials come on board and clear the flight.

Remember that post I wrote not too long ago about the sick passenger who didn’t ask for much (just my next unborn child), well if I had her on board a flight today I’d definitely wonder if she had the flu – as well as whether or not she was crazy. Honestly, I have no problem helping sick passengers, but at the same time I really don’t want to get sick and bring whatever it is they may have (or may not have) home to my son. Remember, he’s two! So what am I going to do (that you can do, too) in order to make sure this doesn’t happen?
  1. Wash hands often with soap and water (I’ll be packing travel size antibacterial hand lotion)
  2. Cover mouth when coughing or sneezing (use the inside of your elbow, not your hand)
  3. Report anyone who may appear sick. Passengers can report to a flight attendant who will then pass along the information to the correct authorities.

Peter Greenberg, the travel detective, doesn’t seem to be all that concerned. Yesterday he wrote on

Remember SARS? I traveled at that time to Hong Kong — when hotel occupancies were around 3%. Had one of the best travel experiences ever. And how about the avian flu? About the only people infected (and there were incredibly few) were those who actually worked on chicken farms.”

I have to admit that Peter actually made me feel a little better about flying. Even so, I did what every flight attendant has probably already done, I went online and plugged the words SWINE FLU and FLIGHT ATTENDANT into the search engine. Just to see if anyone had it. So far so good. No one has it. Thank god! Here’s some other interesting information I found online concerning flight attendants, passengers, and the swine flu…

USA TODAY wrote… the USA’s largest flight attendant union, says it is directing members to keep an eye out for flu-like symptoms, especially on trips to Mexico. “We’re also pushing airlines to supply gloves and masks.” If a flight attendant observes a passenger with flu-like symptoms, the procedure is to isolate that person as much as possible, Caldwell says. So far, the travel industry is trying to accommodate travelers’ fears. Nearly every U.S. airline with routes to Mexico is waiving cancellation fees or rebooking flights. wrote..The union STAVLA, a union that fights for the rights of flight attendants has condemned the airline for not allowing attendants to wear gloves to protect themselves against possible Swine flu infection. A source within the union said it had reiterated a request first made in 2003 for flight attendants to wear gloves when handling biological waste that is generated aboard, this request was put to the Health and Safety Committee and denied.

STAVLA, which has announced that it may take legal action against Iberia, has stated that each flight attendant assigned to the overseas fleet is in contact with about 33,000 passengers a year and has stressed that flights go “several times a day to Mexico.” The union said that after a circular sent to employees yesterday Iberia said ” it only allows the use of gloves by the flight attendant serving a passenger who, in his opinion, is affected by the infection.”

The union representatives of flight attendants recalled that the Regional Institute of Occupational Safety and Health at Work (IRSST) in Madrid has admitted that biowaste requires protective gloves, but “Iberia the practice remains prohibited for reasons of image” .


Q: What can flight attendants and gate agents do?

A: At the airport, gate agents can notify CDC officials at the airport to check waiting passengers who exhibit flulike symptoms. On board, flight attendants are authorized to isolate a sick traveler from the rest of the passengers if possible. Flight attendants also are authorized to dispense face masks to passengers who exhibit flu symptoms.

Have you booked a trip to Mexico and can’t decide what what to do – whether you should stay or go? And if you do decide to stay home, how do you get a refund? Click here for answers

Photos courtesy of (passenger) Wendy Tanner, (flight attendant) Aaron Escobar, (hands) Cafemama –