Hundreds of airline employees in quarantine after possible exposure to COVID-19

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A small number of travellers use kiosks to check-in for Westjet flights at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., on Sunday, March 15, 2020. Darryl Dyck/The Globe and MailDARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Hundreds of Canadian airline employees are in quarantine after possible exposure to COVID-19 and at least 14 have tested positive for the virus, prompting calls for better protection and training from the unions representing flight attendants and pilots.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents flight attendants, is calling on airlines and the federal government to provide flight crews with face shields and gowns in addition to better training on the safe use of masks and gloves to prevent more employees from contacting the virus. Airline employees need access to COVID-19 tests with quick results and greater separation from passengers at airports, said the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots at WestJet, Air Transat and several smaller domestic carriers.

“Air crews are taking significant personal risks by continuing to report for duty. We need immediate action from the government so that air crew exposure to COVID-19 is minimized,” Tim Perry, a WestJet pilot and vice-president of the association, said.

Wesley Lesosky, president of the CUPE Air Canada Component, which represents Air Canada and Air Canada Rouge’s flight attendants, said the union knows of some cases of COVID-19 among flight attendants, but the total number is not available yet. “Too many of our members are risking their health and their safety carrying out their duties to bring Canadians home,” Mr. Lesosky said by phone from Vancouver.

“They’re incredibly concerned that they could bring the virus home. They’re incredibly concerned that they are finding out so late [that] somebody on their flight” had the virus, he said.

Flight attendants are required to go into a 14-day paid period of quarantine if there is a confirmed case of the coronavirus on their flight. There have been 188 flights in Canada – 122 international and 66 domestic – with a COVID-19 case from March 13 to March 20, according to the federal government. The vast majority were operated by Air Canada. The company declined to say if any employees had tested positive.

Based on rough estimates of eight flight attendants for each international flight and four on a smaller domestic plane, there could be at least 1,000 flight attendants who were quarantined a result.

WestJet said seven of its employees have been infected with COVID-19, but declined to say what part of the business they worked in. At Air Transat, five flight attendants and two pilots have tested positive, and more than 200 of the Montreal-based carrier’s employees are in quarantine.

“Whenever there is exposure, the entire [cabin] crew is quarantined,” said Christophe Hennebelle, a spokesman for Air Transat, which has suspended its international commercial flights and is operating so-called repatriation flights on behalf of the government for Canadians stranded abroad. “It is not possible to know the contamination source with certainty,” Mr. Hennebelle said. “It might be on board, during a layover or in Canada.”

Sunwing Airlines said “privacy reasons” prevented it from disclosing if any of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19. The airline referred The Globe and Mail to a government of Saskatchewan website that said 23 flights in Regina or Saskatoon between March 5 and March 21 had a confirmed COVID-19 case on board. Three of these flights belonged to Sunwing.

Transport Canada was not immediately able to say how many airline employees had COVID-19, nor did it respond to questions about making protective gear mandatory for cabin crews.

Flight crews are an essential service and exempt from mandatory quarantines that apply to people who have been outside the country. However, doctors, dentists and other medical professionals will usually refuse to see airline employees because of their travel history and the risk they may have the virus, said Mr. Lesosky of CUPE, which represented about 15,000 Canadian flight attendants overall before the start of the pandemic.

The airlines say they provide gloves and masks to flight crews, and disinfect the airplanes, and are in compliance with Transport Canada and Public Health of Canada regulations.

“We scrupulously follow instructions from the public health agencies, such as questioning the passengers or disinfecting the planes, and protection kits, including masks and gloves, are available aboard every plane,” Mr. Hennebelle said of Air Transat.

Morgan Bell, a WestJet spokeswoman, said employees are not required to wear masks, but they are permitted to do so, in addition to any other personal protection equipment they wish.