Jack*, a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines, was approaching the end of his work trip and was stopped at Dallas Love Field Airport (DAL) when he got a phone call from his employer. After working several back-to-back flights, a representative for Southwest Airlines was calling to let him know that he’d been exposed to COVID-19 while on the job.
Through the company’s contact-tracing efforts, they were able to determine that he was at high risk of carrying the virus and immediately put him into their COVID-19 protocol. Per company policy, any exposed employee must enter into a two-week long quarantine period. “You will not be working your last flight back to Orlando,” said the company contact tracer on the phone.
At that point Jack didn’t feel sick but was exhausted from his trip, so he welcomed the idea of taking a break. Expecting to be put in quarantine in a Dallas hotel for the two week period, Jack began to think about how he would pass the time. Instead, Jack was given different instructions. “You will be put onto the DAL-Orlando flight as a passenger and expected to quarantine once you get home. After the two weeks are up, you will begin working again,” said the company’s contact tracer.
Confused, Jack asked if he needed to get tested for COVID-19 before returning to work. “No,” the representative said. “Just isolate and let us know if you get symptoms,” they continued. That night Jack slept overnight in a Dallas hotel, as part of his multi-day work trip, before boarding a flight home to Orlando as a passenger—the same flight he would have been working had he not been exposed to COVID-19. Flight crew, often having to work for days at a time, are put up in local hotels to sleep in between flying days. The overnight stop in Dallas was part of his scheduled trip, but meant that he had to check into and out of a hotel and travel through DAL once again before being able to get on his flight home where he could then quarantine.
Like Jack, many Southwest Airlines employees have experienced similar COVID-19 exposure protocol in the months since the pandemic has struck, and despite reports that air travel is safe, airline workers are consistently being exposed to the virus while on the job.
After some time, Jack learned that incidents such as these are not uncommon. A colleague that Jack works with confirmed to him that they had experienced similar protocol, wherein they were placed on a commercial flight as a passenger to be sent home to quarantine once they were alerted of their exposure to the virus.
Deadheading, or flying for free on a commercial flight for transport purposes, is a common practice in the air travel industry and one that flight attendants are used to.
For Jack, deadheading was simply a part of his commute. Once Jack was alerted of his exposure to COVID-19, though, deadheading felt like a risky move, given the fact that he had been ordered to quarantine once he got home. “There was no disclaimer given to staff, making me realize that any deadheading employee could potentially be carrying the virus,” said Jack. On the surface, the company says that employees that are exposed to COVID-19 are immediately removed from work for two weeks. It does not, however, clarify that it may have those employees fly home as passengers in order to quarantine.
Unclear how long the company had been deadheading potential COVID-19 patients, Jack began to worry that the airline had been knowingly exposing passengers and other employees for quite some time. “Employees are asked to contact their Leadership for case-by-case assistance if they test positive or exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 as every case is handled promptly and individually to align with public health guidance and best practices,” said a representative for Southwest Airlines in a statement to Grit Daily. “Our goal [is] to support the well-being of our Employees and Customers at all times during the ongoing pandemic,” the statement read.
The company did not outline a clear protocol for potential COVID-19 cases among employees that are alerted of exposure to the virus while on the job, only that confirmed cases or employees experiencing symptoms are to contact their direct leadership. According to the CDC, those who have been exposed to COVID-19 while traveling should restrict all travel—even to return home. Of the three most common travel scenarios, the CDC lists exposure to the virus as a reason to cease all travel immediately and quarantine, along with testing positive for the virus or experiencing symptoms. The website does not instruct travelers to return home in order to begin the quarantine process.
Meanwhile, onboard Southwest Airlines flights, standards for sanitation have slipped since the start of the pandemic according to Jack.
Initially, ground crew would come onboard after each flight and wipe down the chairs, seat belts, armrests and tray tables. Now, the only thing that gets wiped down is the tray tables, according to the Southwest website. In many cases, though, only one rag is used to sanitize an entire aircraft’s worth of tray tables, according to Jack.
Jack did confirm that deep cleans occur at night, and that each aircraft contains proper air filtration systems, but added that day to day execution of these sanitation protocols are questionable. With little time to thoroughly clean the entire aircraft in between flights, workers are asked to execute additional cleaning protocols in the same amount of time that they were given pre-pandemic.
These cleaning protocols also do very little to curb the risk of contracting the virus when in a confined space with an infected individual, as prolonged airborne exposure to the virus accounts for much of its spread. This is not the first time that concern for the spread of COVID-19 on flights has been expressed. TIME covered the issue at the start of the pandemic, back when flight attendants were fighting to be able to wear masks while on the job. At the time, flight attendants were exempt from CDC guidelines, leaving them feeling like “bees scattering pollen everywhere.”
Since then, the CDC has recommended that flight crew wear proper PPE to prevent the spread of disease on commercial aircraft, and commercial airlines are encouraged to promote social distancing. Many, including Southwest Airlines, opted to stop selling middle seats throughout 2020, but are phasing out of that practice. In early December, Southwest announced that it would begin selling middle seats once again to accommodate the uptick in holiday travel, and keep the policy in the new year. Other airlines are set to follow suit, or have already ceased limiting passengers on flights.
In recent months, the air travel industry has been pushing studies that say that flying is safer than other modes of commercial transport, as well as most daily activities. Knowing that airlines have been struggling during this pandemic, this may not pass the initial smell test—and seems to conflict with CDC recommendations to avoid all unnecessary travel. But the breakdown of the air filtration systems on commercial aircraft increases faith in these studies. Commercial aircraft have a high air exchange rate, which consistently brings in outside air and keeps the balance between fresh and recycled air at about 50/50. The conclusion seems reasonable, but the results are to be expected from a study funded by Boeing and United Airlines, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense.
While the CDC acknowledges that the airlines’ studies have a point in that the air circulation on commercial aircraft does not increase the likelihood of catching an airborne disease, it does clarify that people should be aware that there is risk in sharing a confined space with strangers. “Social distancing is difficult on crowded flights and sitting within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase your risk of getting COVID-19,” says the CDC website.
More recently, a passenger onboard a United Airlines flight from Orlando to Los Angeles died suddenly of the virus mid-flight, as was confirmed by a coroner. Another passenger that tried to help the dying man later reported experiencing symptoms of the virus, and the airline said it was working to alert passengers that they were likely exposed.
Passengers onboard the flight were required to fill out a checklist before boarding to confirm that they had not tested positive and were not experiencing symptoms. The airline later confirmed that the man had likely “wrongly acknowledged this requirement” as it was confirmed that he had been experiencing COVID-19 symptoms when he boarded the flight, including a loss of taste and smell.
For flight attendants, being exposed to the virus while working might mean having to board another commercial flight before they are able to quarantine—potentially exposing more unsuspecting passengers along the way.
*Names of sources in this article have been changed to protect their identities.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article erroneously reported that the fight in question landed at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. The Southwest flight in question landed at Dallas Love Field Airport.