The previously unreported policies by the U.S. airlines show how the
mosquito-borne virus, linked to thousands of birth defects in
Brazil, looms as an issue not just for airline passengers but for
flight attendants and pilots as well.
In an internal memo on Jan. 28, seen by Reuters, United said
expectant flight attendants as well as those seeking to become
pregnant could switch routes to avoid Zika-affected regions without
repercussions. The airline has similar options available for pilots,
Charles Hobart, spokesman for parent United Continental Holdings
Inc, told Reuters on Wednesday.
Delta Air Lines Inc has also let flight attendants and pilots switch
assignments since Jan. 17, and "a small number of crew members have
swapped trips to date," spokesman Morgan Durrant said.
"We have immediate concern about our members' health," said Sara
Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight
Attendants-CWA, when asked for comment on United's memo.
"This issue is changing at a fairly rapid pace, (and) it's important
that those updates are ongoing," she said, adding that airlines
appeared to be responding faster to employee concerns than they did
during past outbreaks, such as the spread of Ebola in 2014.
In Europe, safety rules require that pilots and cabin crew are
switched to ground jobs when they are pregnant.
Major long-haul carriers Lufthansa and Air France also said they
already offered crew members with any reservations about flying to a
particular destination the chance to change a shift.
Air France said it had offered that flexibility during the Ebola
A spokeswoman for Lufthansa said on Thursday that so far only a few
crew members had switched routes because of fears over Zika.
Airlines and hotel chains have said it is too early to tell if the
Zika epidemic is affecting bookings, although several are offering
pregnant women and in some cases all passengers a refund or a change
[to top of second column]
However, top U.S. carriers, including United and Delta, are offering
refunds for flights to impacted areas. Travel agents also say "babymooners"
- parents-to-be taking last-hurrah vacations - have backed out of
trips and changed itineraries.
Concern about Zika has been magnified in recent days by a reported
case of sexual transmission in Texas as well as a global health
emergency declared by the World Health Organization.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged
pregnant women to consider delaying travel to locations hit by Zika,
for which there is no treatment or vaccine.
"The safety of our employees and customers is paramount, and we are
providing this option because it's the right thing to do," Hobart
United, the second-largest U.S. airline by capacity, declined to
address whether it was concerned about crew shortages resulting from
the Jan. 28 notice. The carrier has some 20,000 flight attendants
The memo said flight attendants can drop their re-assigned trips,
without pay, if United is able to find replacements for them.
United declined to say how many flight attendants have asked to
switch their assignments.
(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in New York; Additional reporting by
Victoria Bryan in Berlin; Editing by Bernard Orr and Alexander
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