A Boston-based flight attendant for American Airlines said she was barred from wearing a face shield because her managers told her it would make passengers uncomfortable.
The flight attendant, who lives in Worcester, recently returned to the skies after a month of canceled flights, and she was nervous. She had just found out that, before she’d stopped flying, she was on a plane with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. So she decided to do everything she could to protect herself, and those around her, and bought an $8 plastic face shield on Etsy.
Marie, 33, who asked to be identified by her middle name to protect her privacy, showed up for her May 2 trip from Boston to Dallas wearing the clear plastic visor over an N95 mask. She took a selfie onboard that day, her eyes fierce and focused, and posted it on Instagram. “Gonna kick some ass!” she wrote.
After a few trips wearing the shield, Marie said, her superiors started reprimanding her, telling her it wasn’t part of the “image standards” and made passengers feel uncomfortable, and suggested she take a leave if she didn’t feel safe. She felt intimidated and harassed, she said, crying all the way home one day, but continued wearing it. Then on May 22, the airline sent flight attendants a message saying that face shields “could pose a safety hazard, making it more difficult for crew members to respond to an emergency,” and banned them.
But Marie believes the risk is greater without a shield.
“I think it’s a safety hazard for us to not protect our entire face for every second we’re on a plane,” said Marie, who has been documenting her battle with the airline on Facebook. “Carriers like mine are going to create another devastating second wave of this deadly virus because we are not being given appropriate PPE to wear . . . I can see this virus spreading like wildfire throughout the cabin.”
As the economy reopens and planes slowly start to fill up, some flight attendants are increasingly worried about their safety. Airlines, including American, say they are limiting capacity. Most flights are more than half-empty, but about one out of 12 are more than 70 percent full, according to the industry group Airlines for America.
In Boston, the numbers of departing passengers have been ticking up, from fewer than 9,200 in mid-April to nearly 27,000travelers on May 18.
Louis Mendes Paiva, a systems engineer from Weymouth who flies frequently for work, has noticed the planes getting more crowded — and, he said, more dangerous. Paiva, who wears a face shield on a doctor’s recommendation and flew with Marie from Boston to Charlotte, N.c., recently, said American’s policy forbidding flight attendants from wearing shields isn’t fair: “They should be encouraged to wear as much safety PPE as possible.”
American and other major US carriers have put many safety measures in place, including requiring masks for flight attendants and passengers, restricting food and beverage service, and conducting temperature checks.
Face shields, however, which have been used by several international carriers, according to news reports, are not part of the plan.
Shields protect the eyes — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people can get COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching their “mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes” — and some epidemiologists have said they may provide better protection than masks.
But in a message to flight attendants — an apparent response to Marie’s insistence on wearing a face shield — American Airlines forbade flight attendants from wearing them. “The FAA has not approved them for regular use onboard our aircraft, and the CDC does not recommend them,” the airline said. “No other US carriers permit flight attendants to wear face shields during regular flight operations.”
American went on to say that if CDC recommendations evolve, as they did on face masks, airlines would ask the FAA to modify its policy, noting that allowing shields would mean revising procedures for putting on oxygen masks and performing CPR and other safety measures, American said.
The FAA said in a statement that it “does not need to preapprove the use of personal protective equipment by flight attendants if the equipment does not impede the ability to perform required safety tasks.”
American Airlines employees were prevented from wearing masks onboard until late March, days after a Boston-based manager left a voicemail for a flight attendant, posted online, stating “We cannot let you come to work with a face mask on.”
Marie’s union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, would say only that its safety department “is working with the company now on this issue.” A copy of an e-mail obtained by the Globe from the union’s safety chair, Thomas Houdek, said the APFA was in talks with American about giving flight attendants safety glasses. The e-mail went on to say that Marie’s “derogatory postings” “predetermined the outcome of this case.” “It probably would not have become an issue if she had just worn it in flight and didn’t call attention to herself by postings on social media,” he wrote.
Airlines and unions have not released the numbers of flight attendants who have tested positive for or died of COVID-19, though both American and United said that numbers of infected employees have dropped dramatically. But with more people traveling — more than 1.5 million flew from Thursday to Monday of Memorial Day weekend, according to the Transportation Security Administration — and a second surge of infections widely predicted, flight attendants remain wary.
John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union of America, which represents flight attendants for Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways, the biggest carrier at Logan, said that face shields makes sense. “Employers and passengers need to come to terms with the new post-COVID reality, which is we need to do everything we can to stop the spread.”
A Southwest flight attendant based in Florida who has flown throughout the pandemic said her anxiety level remains high, despite precautions put in place. “The night before I go into work, my stomach hurts,” said the 26-year veteran, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her job.
Now that beaches and some attractions are open, and older “snowbirds” are heading north after spending the winter in Florida, her job is getting more stressful. More people doesn’t just mean less social distancing, it also means more potential medical emergencies, she said, particularly among older passengers. Whereas flights in April might have had four people and no wheelchairs, she said, “now you’re back to 13 wheelchairs.”
Being able to wear a face shield would be “fabulous,” she said.
Marie, the Boston flight attendant, said American is worried about the shield scaring away passengers, while she’s worried about people dying. “It makes customers feel uncomfortable when I’m wearing it . . . that was the bottom line of the whole thing,” she said. “To be told that during a pandemic is unreal.”
Richard Martino, 75, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., has been flying to Boston every few months for a heart disease clinical trial at Boston Medical Center. On his most recent trip between Boston and Charlotte, N.C., he was on a flight with Marie, and said her face shield made him feel more secure. On his flights between Charlotte and Myrtle Beach, Martino was on “jammed” planes, “sitting like a sardine in a can” and surrounded by people taking off their masks.
Getting COVID-19 would be a death sentence, he said. “If I come down with it, I’m dead. I’m literally dead.”
Marie, a third-generation flight attendant, said she loves her job but is distressed that she isn’t allowed to do more to protect herself and those around her. The first time after face shields were officially banned, she wore hers in protest. When a manager told her she was violating policy, Marie appealed to the captain, who noted that shields aren’t prohibited by the FAA. So she kept it on, first to Charlotte, then to Houston, and planned to continue to wearing it.
“The number one priority is safety. Safety! That’s what our job is for,” she said. “I want to stop a second big wave of this virus from taking innocent lives if I can.”
Katie Johnston can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.