Airline and airport employees nationwide are seeking safeguards and information from carriers as well as the FAA: numbers of airline workers testing positive for COVID-19 emerge


Brenda Kochevar

Southwest Airlines at Phoenix International Airport

Brenda Kochevar, Reporter

Across the U.S., air traffic controllers, baggage handlers, flight attendants, gate attendants, pilots, and TSA officers are testing positive for COVID-19.

News organizations and employee unions nationwide are releasing information with regard to COVID-19 as airlines begin to show numbers with regard to employees being confirmed with COVID-19. 

The numbers are beginning to reveal just how many airline employees are becoming infected throughout the nation.

Air traffic control centers across the nation are temporarily closing for cleaning and this is causing air traffic flight interruptions as some controllers and technicians are being diagnosed with COVID-19.

Airline employees and their unions are fighting for their rights as COVID-19 spreads throughout the work force.

With each airline and employee classification possibly belonging to a different union, the reports and demands are coming from various sources.

In the past, employees were not allowed to wear face masks as they violated employee uniform codes. 

Now, the CDC recommends that all Americans wear masks in public places without social distancing space. 

Airlines have had to ease up on their regulations regarding face masks for their employees.

Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are struggling to keep up with the ever changing rules and regulations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Privacy laws and CDC regulations are complicating matters involving employee safety versus the right to know.

Exhausted supplier sources are creating undesirable and unsanitary situations throughout the entire aviation industry.

Many airline employees are reportedly sewing their own face masks.

Unions call on carriers to release information on confirmed cases in airline industry and safeguards to protect airline employees

The Air Line Pilots Association sent a letter to the FAA dated, March 31, 2020 compelling the FAA to notify all carriers that they must inform their airline personnel of any airline flight crew or other airline employees that may have been exposed to individuals that have tested positive for COVID-19. 

An urgent order, directive or regulatory requirement is necessary to obtain unequivocal air carrier compliance with CDC guidance, specifically regarding notification of flight crew and other airline employees exposed to individuals who are confirmed positive for COVID-19. CDC guidance tells employers: “If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19 infection, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The fellow employees should then self-monitor for symptoms (i.e., fever, cough, or shortness of breath).” 

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in an updated link, releases the latest COVID-19 statistics.

TSA statistics released April 14 show overall, 394 employees have confirmed cases, 41 employees have recovered, and 3 have died. The baggage officers and screening officers’ last day at work have ranged from March 30 to April 9 and their work locations varied nationwide.

Everett Kelly, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), whose members include Transportation Security Officers (TSO), told ABC News that they have been asking since January for a task force to address the COVID-19 crisis.

In March, the union asked TSA for N95 masks for the TSOs-but were denied—according to the union. 

Reports are emerging on COVID-19 confirmed cases and deaths of airline and airport employees.

News 4-Fox 11, Reno, NV reported a positive test of an airline employee at Reno-Tahoe’s International Airport.

ABC7 News, San Francisco, reported a Southwest Airlines gate agent at Oakland International Airport is confirmed positive.

NBC Bay Area and KIRO 7 News both reported that Alaska Airlines announced customer service agents at San Francisco International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airports tested positive for COVID-19.

ABC Action News I-Team working on a tip reported that Tampa International Airport sent out a memo advising that three workers were confirmed with COVID-19.

The memo was sent out a day after an airport authority representative said there were no cases according to the report.

The Business Insider reported Paul Frishkorn, 65, an American Airlines flight attendant based in Philadelphia, died after testing positive for COVID-19.

Frishkorn had been a flight attendant since 1997 and reportedly had underlying health issues.

The Washington Post reported that the Transport Workers Union (TWU) announced the death of Ralph Gismondi, 68, a JetBlue flight attendant.

Gismondi, based at John F. Kennedy International Airport, was the second reported COVID-19 death of a flight attendant.

KJRH-TV, 2 ‘Works For You,’ in Tulsa reported on Friday that Steve Williams, an American Airlines employee based in Tulsa, had passed away from COVID-19.

The Washington Post reported that the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) has over 150 members with confirmed cases of COVID-19 with an additional 300 who believe they may also be infected.

The AFA-CWA represents flight attendants who work for Alaska Airlines, Spirit Airlines, United Airlines and more.

USA Today reported on Wednesday that American Airlines has 100 flight attendants and 41 pilots with confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

WFAA-TV reported on Tuesday, the Transportation Workers Union of America (TWU) Local 556, the Southwest Airlines flight attendants union, stated Southwest has over 600 confirmed employee cases of COVID-19.

A Southwest Airlines representative disputed the number and stated privacy concerns when asked to disclose coronavirus statistics.

“Make those numbers public so that workers can make decisions,” Lyn Montgomery, the president of TWU Local 556 said. “I’m concerned about the flight attendants that I represent.”

Business Insider reported on March 13 an American Airlines pilot based in Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) was confirmed with COVID-19. 

Then, on April 9, the Dallas Morning News reported unions had advised 41 American Airlines pilots and 33 Southwest Airlines pilots have confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

Back in March, the same news site reported an American Airlines baggage handler was confirmed positive with the COVID-19. 

Bloomberg News reported 32 Delta Airlines pilots are confirmed with COVID-19  according to the pilot’s union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).

ALPA members include those at Delta Airlines and United Airlines and total more than 63,000 pilots.

As air traffic controllers and technicians are diagnosed with COVID-19, their centers are being shut down for cleaning and sanitizing.

On March 30, Business Insider reported closures of 17 U.S. air traffic control centers due to air traffic controllers and technicians testing positive for COVID-19.

These closed control centers consisted of regional, executive and international airport’s air traffic control centers; Air Route Traffic Control Centers; and Terminal Radar Approach Control Facilities nationwide. 

The centers reportedly had to be temporarily closed to conduct a thorough cleaning of the facilities before reopening.

The FAA lists facilities affected by COVID-19 and The Washington Post reported closures of control towers and centers located at Chicago International Airport; Indianapolis International Airport; Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport and the Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility; John F. Kennedy International Airport, NY;  and LaGuardia Airport, NY.

The Washington Post also reported nationwide closures of control towers and air route centers as COVID-19 cases are confirmed and the FAA’s struggles to obtain cleaning products used to sanitize facilities. 

Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) had pressured the FAA to respond to its lack of cleaning supplies for the safety of its employees.

“We are restocking cleaning supplies at air traffic facilities where they are running low,” the FAA said in a statement. “As an interim measure, the agency has authorized managers to purchase cleaning products at local stores if needed to sanitize workplaces. We are not requiring employees to bring supplies from home, although some employees are doing so voluntarily.”

“Cleaning materials that meet the criteria are in short supply across the marketplace, and we may face further challenges maintaining adequate quantities,” the FAA said.

“In extreme cases, service levels could vary, but safety will not be compromised,” the FAA said.

Unions are fighting to add protections for their members as COVID-19 outbreaks increase.

Since January, the union for the flight attendants, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, has pushed American Airlines for protection and safety of its members.

The Allied Pilots Association (APA) is pushing American Airlines for more protection for its pilots. 

Dennis Tajer, APA spokesman, released a statement asking for safety gear, screening for flight crews and passengers, and priority COVID-19 testing for its members.

The ALPA has sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stating some airlines are not advising employees when they have been exposed to COVID-19. 

On April 6, TWU representing 65,000 aviation workers sent a letter to the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seeking protection of its members safety and health during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The TWU members work for Allegiant, American, Atlas, JetBlue and Southwest Airlines.

The letter also requests that OSHA and the FAA authorize standardized professional cleaning and disinfecting of all aircraft after every flight. 

TWU also requested personal protective equipment for all airline workers, social distancing enforcement, and notification of any potential exposure to COVID-19.

Matt Miller, spokesman for American Airlines, said the company is working on protections for employees as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

We’re purchasing masks for all of our front line team members,” Miller said. “We’re in the process of distributing those masks throughout our system, and we’ve also encouraged our team members to bring their own until we can get adequate supplies at all of our locations. We’ve received a significant number of masks this week and expect to get more before the end of the month.”

Some airline employees are sewing their own face masks or seeking masks elsewhere

The Dallas Morning News reported that Tammy Spence took her sewing machine and some old tee-shirts to work at DFW so she could sew face masks for her co-workers. 

Spence, an American Airlines customer service manager, was supported by management who purchased fabric and set up a sewing center in their conference room.

By Wednesday, the makeshift sewing center had over a dozen sewing machines and almost 100 volunteers who sewed in shifts as social distancing constrictions allowed. 

Almost 500 masks were created that day.

“We’re just gonna keep on going because we have a lot of employees and demand,” Spence said. “We can’t even keep up.”

American Airlines has almost 18,000 employees at the DFW hub. The airline is utilizing its employees with downtime to sew masks at its other hubs in Charlotte, Miami, and Philadelphia too.

The Washington Post and The Plain Dealer report that many flight attendants are fearful of the COVID-19 and they worry about their health and their families health. These attendants are reluctant to give their names in fear of losing their jobs due to airlines’ policy forbidding them to speak to the press.

“It’s spreading like wildfire at this point,” a flight attendant based in Oakland said. “It’s unrealistic to think that flight attendants, pilots and passengers don’t have it. Somebody has it on somebody’s plane.”