The United States’ largest flight attendant union has rejected calls to shorten the isolation period for crew members who test positive for COVID-19, arguing that any decision on recommended isolation periods should be “based on science, not staffing, and made by public health professionals, not airlines.”
Delta Air and jetBlue have written to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the last few days, requesting that the federal agency cut the recommended isolation period for COVID-positive flight attendants in half.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian has urged CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walenksy to release fully vaccinated airline employees from COVID isolation within five days of a positive test result.
Because so many staff have been infected with the highly transmissible Omicron strain, Bastian claims that the early release is required to keep the airline operational.
Delta had to cancel more than 100 flights on Christmas Eve due to a personnel shortage. The Atlanta-based airline said it had looked at all options but couldn’t locate enough healthy employees to keep the plane flying.
Due to a surge in sickness rates, United Airlines faced an even bigger staffing deficit, canceling more than 150 flights.
Shortening the isolation period, according to the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), which represents crewmembers at United and 16 other carriers across the United States, is not the solution.
Sara Nelson, labeled the most powerful flight attendant in the United States, writes to Dr. Walensky, advising caution:
“The current climate in the passenger cabin is highly stressed. We are experiencing a record high number of aggressive passenger incidents, many of which are fueled by alcohol and refusal to comply with onboard mask rules.
Staffing flights with crewmembers who may still be symptomatic, infectious, or both by shortening them on necessary isolation time will only make the situation worse.”
“Flight attendants should not be expected to return to work until they test negative and do not exhibit symptoms. We do not know if 10 days represents that ‘magic number’ but we do not see the justification for reducing the number of days at this time,” the letter continues.
Ed Bastian has proposed that the isolation time be reduced exclusively for vital personnel who test negative on day five, enabling crews that test positive for COVID to continue in isolation.
Airlines for America, a trade group that represents airlines such as American Airlines, Alaska Air, and Hawaiian, as well as Delta, United, and jetBlue, has also asked the CDC to “reconsider” the 10-day isolation period in favor of a five-day quarantine for fully vaccinated essential workers who test themselves out of isolation.
“We need the CDC to err on the side of caution by ensuring a suitable number of isolation days so that people who remain either infectious, symptomatic, or both are not circulating and infecting others,” Nelson counters.
The CDC agreed on Thursday to reduce the time spent in isolation for healthcare professionals to only seven days, but has so far refused to change its guidelines for other workgroups.