For general information about COVID-19, please consult cupe.ca/covid-19.

CUPE is calling on all airlines to consult with CUPE local unions and institute emergency control measures immediately, including providing crew members with the following information:

  • How to identify signs/symptoms of illness (in oneself and others), and
  • How to manage potentially ill persons onboard.

CUPE is encouraging airlines to adopt the following recommendations:

  • Provide every flight attendant on all flights with a sufficient amount of non-allergenic medical gloves and masks that are determined to be appropriate protection by Health Canada and/or WHO.
  • Provide any volunteer medical personnel assisting with medical situations with an adequate supply of medical gloves and masks that are determined appropriate protection by the World Health Origination.
  • Permit flight attendants working on flights to wear gloves any time during the flight without any threat of discriminatory or disciplinary actions.
  • Develop realistic procedures and/or engineering controls for isolating symptomatic passengers if the incident aircraft is too full to permit isolating an unoccupied radius around the symptomatic individual(s) (consistent with WHO recommendations).
  • Require pre-flight briefings to communicate the use of universal precaution procedures and equipment to prevent exposure on a flight, as well as briefings to review guidance in the event that a passenger exhibits signs or symptoms of infectious disease during a flight. 
  • Provide an adequate supply of surgical masks for any passengers who exhibit symptoms on a flight. 
  • Provide a leak-resistant airsick bag that is immediately available for each passenger.
  • Ensure all aircraft meet the federal requirements for access to soap and running water.
  • Require airlines to follow CDC-recommended guidelines for cleaning aircraft and any contaminated areas after a flight with a sick traveler who may have a communicable disease, including protection and training for the aircraft cleaners.

Take precautions

CUPE reminds all flight attendants to take every precaution that has been made available to prevent the spread of communicable disease.

Review universal precautions in your flight attendant manuals. Also, please remember that surgical masks are not designed and do not prevent the inhalation of airborne contaminants or viruses. Surgical masks are designed to prevent the spread of the wearer’s fluids and are best used for passengers who are showing signs of illness. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Is COVID-19 a health and safety issue?

Absolutely. CUPE reiterates the call for all airlines to engage with their policy and workplace health and safety committees and act on their recommendations for company-specific safety measures to protect their workers from exposure.

What are the signs of COVID-19?

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, people infected with COVID-19 may have little to no symptoms. A person may not know they have symptoms of COVID-19 because they are very similar to the common cold or a flu.

Symptoms may take up to 14 days to appear after exposure to the virus. However, Public Health Ontario has reported that the average incubation period centres around five days.

Symptoms of COVID-19 may include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • difficulty breathing
  • pneumonia in both lungs

Should I wear a mask on board an airplane?

It is very important to understand the different types of “masks” which exist. As mentioned in the first update (below), surgical masks are not designed to filter air that is breathed in – they only capture large droplets from the wearer.

When workers ask whether a tight-fitting surgical mask provides any protection, the answer often is that it’s “better than nothing”. However, many people get a false sense of security that is not warranted while wearing surgical masks.

Following the precautionary principle, CUPE recommends that flight attendants who have to work closely with symptomatic people on board an airplane should be fitted for, and provided with, at least an N95 half-face respirator that provides a proper seal to the wearer’s face. This would require at least some of every crew to be fit-tested. If symptomatic passengers refuse to wear a surgical mask, then flight attendants should also wear a face shield to protect droplets from getting into their eyes.

What should we do if someone shows signs of COVID-19 on the plane?

If a passenger is showing signs of the virus, they should be provided with – and told to wear – a surgical mask. This will help reduce the release of large droplets.

Always follow your airline-specific Standard Operating Procedures. CUPE reiterates the call for airlines to develop realistic procedures and/or engineering controls for isolating symptomatic passengers. We further call on airlines to plan ahead by leaving space on the plane to set up a minimal quarantine area for passengers who show symptoms and assign a limited number of flight attendants (who have the proper personal protective equipment) to work exclusively with these passengers.

What non-symptomatic protections should I undertake? What else can I do?

CUPE members should ensure a strong commitment to hand hygiene. This includes frequent hand washing and using gloves when interacting with items that have been in contact with passengers. Avoid touching your face – especially your eyes, nose or mouth.

CUPE reiterates the call for cleaning that follows the American CDC-recommended guidelines for cleaning aircraft after a symptomatic passenger has been on board. Airlines should also increase the frequency of deep clean procedures to ensure that surfaces do not remain contaminated.

Preventing Discrimination

Racism and xenophobia have spiked in the context of the recent outbreak particularly towards Chinese, East Asian and Southeast Asian people, and, increasingly, Middle Eastern people. This pattern of refueled racism is causing harm, much like what happened during the SARS pandemic.

Indictments and blame of racialized workers are not acceptable. Jokes associating the virus with people of any descent are likewise unacceptable. 

CUPE stands with all workers and condemns any form harassment, racism and/or racial discrimination, and any acts of violence directed towards them.

If you are a worker who experiences any form of harassment, or discrimination in the workplace, remember that this is a violation of your human rights and can be grieved – even when the collective agreement doesn’t address these issues explicitly.  

Additionally, under health and safety law, employers are required to provide a healthy and safe workplace, so incidents should be reported to your immediate supervisor, union and health and safety committee or representative.

Reports of Potential Exposures

As COVID-19 spreads, we have started receiving multiple reports from across airlines of crews who have been on duty with infected passengers. 

The process that has been followed when an infected passenger has been identified appears to vary greatly, as does the terminology used, or the meaning behind the various terminology. Different levels of precautions, AND different terms such as isolation, self-isolation, self-monitoring, and quarantine are being used differently by different health organizations and various air carriers. CUPE National is in the process of setting up a meeting with the Public Health Agency of Canada to discuss how regional or provincial health authorities are contacting potentially exposed flight attendants, as these officers may have limited knowledge of how your work is actually done.

IF you have been contacted by a public health authority before you have spoken with a company or union representative, we ask that you contact your union executive immediately before you take any further steps.  They will be able to provide you with advice, or direct you to the appropriate contact within the airline.

CUPE continues to push for increased protections on flights (see below).  For now, we believe that anyone who has been notified by a public health agency or the company of potential exposure to an infected passenger should be provided pay protection and allowed to self-isolate for the 14 days following the exposure event even if this is not required by the public health authority. CUPE will continue to push for this as the industry standard.

The situation with COVID-19 remains very dynamic, and we continue to remind flight attendants to take all the precautions they can by:

  • Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (the time it takes to play happy birthday in your head 2 full times)
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Use personal protective equipment that has been supplied
  • Check the resources on the plane (PPE, alcohol sanitizer, gloves and masks), and if you are missing any items needed to ensure your safety, report it and get the items before you take off. Remember it is YOUR RIGHT to request any missing PPE promised by the employer to ensure your safety.
  • If a guest is showing signs of the virus, (i.e., coughing, fever, difficulty breathing) they should be provided with - and told to wear - a surgical mask.  If a guest showing signs of the virus requires medical assistance on-board, follow your manual and/or SOPs and do not hesitate to use the UPK to protect yourself.
  • If your carrier has a specific protocol for suspected communicable diseases know it and apply it when it counts.