A Delta Air Lines executive directed pilots who test positive for the coronavirus withhold the diagnosis from flight attendants and other colleagues, according to video of an internal discussion among leaders of the pilots’ union.
In the nine-minute video, which appears to have been recorded in secret and posted Thursday to YouTube, a union representative tells the other leaders that one of Delta’s chief pilots, who are also high-ranking regional managers at the company, told air captains “it’s not your job to go telling people that you were infected.” Workers HuffPost spoke to interpreted it as an attempt to restrict who found out.
“That’s one reason why the company was telling people, ‘Hey, don’t tell the flight attendants you were sick,’ or anything of that nature,” said the representative, who appears to be Brandon Conwill, a committee chairman at Delta’s chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association, or ALPA.
Delta declined to name the chief pilot or confirm whether it would investigate the remarks. A spokesman said, “We are aware of the video and the discussion contained within it and are monitoring – our initial read is this is not consistent with our [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]-informed notification process.”
But on Friday, the company sent pilots updated guidelines for informing employees when a co-worker tests positive for the virus.
In an memo HuffPost obtained, the Atlanta-based carrier said “leaders will identify and notify” any employees “who have come into prolonged close contact” with any pilot or worker who “has symptoms or a diagnosis of COVID-19,” the disease caused by the coronavirus, within the “48 hours prior to when the sick employee’s symptoms began.”
Under the policy change, the company now considers “prolonged close contact” to mean “within 6 feet for 10 continuous minutes,” up from 10 to 30 minutes. It also widens the scope of potentially exposed workers from those in contact with the sick employee the day symptoms began to two days prior.
“In some instances, depending on the clinical investigation, Delta may notify employees of the need to self-quarantine,” Morgan Durrant, a Delta spokesman, said by email.
The release of the recording sent flight attendants and other crew ― none of whom, besides some dispatchers and pilots, are unionized ― at the world’s highest-revenue-generating airline into a panic. The incident added another layer of turmoil to an industry in chaos as the U.S. death toll from the pandemic surges and analysts warn that the record $50 billion bailout Congress approved for airlines won’t be enough to prevent mass layoffs.
Flight attendants were already taking unpaid time off to reduce their exposure to the pandemic, according to a worker who spoke to HuffPost on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from the company. Without clear information from management about who had tested positive on which flights, some workers had booked hotel rooms at their personal expense to avoid potentially infecting their family members.
On Tuesday, national representatives at the ALPA sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration complaining that some carriers are not following the CDC’s guidance to inform employees if they’ve been exposed to the novel coronavirus, Bloomberg reported.
By Friday, the number of Delta pilots who tested positive for COVID-19 rose to 48, the union said on its website, up from 32 the day before. In the video, union executive chairman Ryan Schnitzler said “quite a few more” pilots exhibited symptoms but did not receive testing.
“We think the number is quite significant, but we just don’t have the data,” he said. “The company’s hiding it.”
Schnitzler did not respond to an email requesting comment.
It’s a sad, sad situation that the flight attendants and other workers at Delta ― groundworkers, ticket agents, ramp services and mechanics ― don’t know if they can trust the company now.
James Carlson, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers
On Thursday night, Julianna Helminski, a flight attendant trying to organize a union with her co-workers, asked Delta’s senior vice president Allison Ausband whether management planned to inform flight crews who came in contact with sick pilots of the diagnoses and investigate the orders the chief pilot gave, according to an email exchange HuffPost reviewed.
“It’s a sad, sad situation that the flight attendants and other workers at Delta ― groundworkers, ticket agents, ramp services and mechanics ― don’t know if they can trust the company now,” said James Carlson, the assistant airline coordinator of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the union with which flight attendants at Delta are seeking representation.
He echoed calls for a probe into the chief pilot, and said withholding information on exposure was “reprehensible.” Carlson said recognizing the union Delta spent much of the last year trying to quash would provide a channel for accountability to workers.
“This is a perfect example of what can happen when you lack a union,” he said.
“At every single one of our carriers where we have unionized workers … We work hand-in-hand with the company and that’s what comes with union representation and a voice at the table,” he added. “You’re included in all these decisions. You have agency. At Delta, none of that happens.”
By early Friday evening, flight attendants told HuffPost the new guidelines sent to pilots had yet to be circulated via official channels to other employees.