Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) FAQs

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

How is COVID-19 contracted?

There are three general ways that illness can be “spread” from person-to-person: through contact, aerosol (droplets) or airborne transmission.

  • Contact is just as it sounds. An infected person is in physical contact with an unaffected person and transfers the virus.
  • Aerosol or droplet spread happens when fluids in large droplets from a sick person come into contact with the eyes, nose, mouth or a cut in the skin of an uninfected person. Due to their size, droplets do not hang in the air but may contaminate surfaces.
  • Airborne spread happens when the infectious biological material (virus, bacteria etc.) floats through the air after a person talks, coughs or sneezes. Those germs can be inhaled even after the original person is no longer nearby.

According to Public Health Ontario (PHO), coronaviruses are transmitted between people most readily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected individual coughs or sneezes, and also possibly through contaminated objects including surfaces or objects contaminated with infectious droplets.

Additionally, according to PHO, there have been reports of potential asymptomatic transmission of the virus. If the virus can be transferred during the incubation period, then a person can spread the virus unknowingly for 5 days.

Airborne transmission has not been ruled out. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada “Significant additional information is still required to identify the cause of the outbreak, to fully understand how the disease is transmitted, and the severity of illness it causes in humans.”

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 where 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.

Are people who “look Chinese” more likely to have the virus?

No. This is simply false and causes negative social impacts. Sadly, anti-Asian racism and xenophobia have spiked in the context of the recent outbreak. This pattern of refueled racism towards the Asian population globally is causing harm, much like what happened during the SARS pandemic. Indictments and blame of Chinese people (and those presumed to be Chinese) are not acceptable. Jokes associating the virus with people of Asian descent are likewise unacceptable. 

CUPE stands with those of Chinese heritage and condemns any form of harassing, racist, and discriminatory remarks, and any acts of violence, directed towards them.

If you are a flight attendant who experiences any form of harassment, racism and/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.  

Additionally, under health and safety law, the airlines are required to provide a healthy and safe workplace, so incidents should be reported to your immediate supervisor and health and safety committee as well.

The novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, in December 2019, is creating growing concern for air travel. CUPE flight attendants who travel the globe, including through mainland China, are at higher likelihood for exposure.

Many things are unknown about the new coronavirus, including how the virus is spread. However, CUPE has created a general information page that can be found here.  This page will be updated as new information becomes available.

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. 

CUPE will provide additional updates as more information is available and will continue to press airlines for action as we work to keep flight attendants and the travelling public healthy and safe.