Airlines

No hot towel service, more masks — flight attendants seek protections against coronavirus spread

Key Points
  • Some airlines are providing extra hand sanitizer and other materials to crews.
  • Carriers have trimmed international flying, particularly to Asia because of travel restrictions and a drop in demand.
  • Flight attendants want carriers to end hot towel service and ensure flight attendants can take time off without disciplinary action if they are sick.
A United Airlines flight attendant wearing a face mask walks out of the international terminal at the San Francisco International Airport in Millbrae, California, January 31, 2020.
Yichuan Cao | Sipa USA | AP Images

No hot towel service. Disposable cups. Plenty of masks for passengers and crews. Paid leave. The largest flight attendants union in the U.S. is seeking a series of measures to help combat the spread of the coronavirus and ensure cabin crews have pay and benefits protections if they become sick.

"Airlines and the industry, not all consistently, have implemented some of these recommendations," said the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents some 50,000 flight attendants including those at United Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Spirit Airlines. "In general, the industry has far exceeded government instruction, but a coordinated, thorough response from our government is what is needed."

Airlines have been at the center of the outbreak of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, which has infected more than 90,000 people and is now threatening a decadelong streak of U.S. airline profits as travel demand softens. Airline stocks have tumbled more than the broader market in the past week's rout as a result.

Carriers have been tasked with helping enforce a constantly changing set of travel restrictions, including prohibitions of some visitors who have traveled to China and quarantines of other travelers. Airlines have already reduced international flights in Asia and to some destinations in Europe, and more cuts could be on the way. 

Alaska Airlines on Monday said it is suspending its hot towel service in first class and will suspend onboard recycling for two weeks "in order to reduce touching passenger-handled materials." The Seattle-based carrier also encouraged passengers to travel with hand santizer or antibacterial wipes to clean arm rests and tray tables "out of an abundance of caution," but it warned travelers that commercially available cleaning wipes could deteriorate the top coat on the airline's leather seats.

Delta Air Lines, for its part, said its cleaning crews on trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights have to complete a 19-point checklist including disinfecting surfaces like seats, seatback pockets, tray tables and floors. On U.S.-bound flights from Asia, the Atlanta-based airline is washing linens and sanitizing headsets separately and said it is providing amenity kits to all passengers on long-haul international flights with hand sanitizer or towelettes.

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