Air Canada allows flight attendants to wear gloves to protect against Ebola

MONTREAL  – All Air Canada flight attendants will be able to wear disposable gloves to help protect themselves from the risk of contact with the Ebola virus.

The country’s largest carrier said it had no objection to a request from the union representing cabin crews to don hand protection on all flights when collecting passenger waste, such as cups or diapers, that could carry saliva or other body fluids contaminated with the deadly virus.

“We have no objection to the elective use of gloves under these circumstances provided that crew continue to follow (public health) guidelines…specifically that frequent, effective hand-washing take place, as gloves do not replace proper hand hygiene,” wrote Samuel Elfassy, the airline’s senior director for corporate safety and Dr. Jim Chung, its chief medical officer.

Normally, Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) attendants can wear gloves for in-flight emergencies and duties such as handling food and for washroom maintenance. However, the union said their use is mainly for events such as when someone is bleeding or sick.

Michel Cournoyer, president of the Air Canada Component of CUPE, said the expanded use of gloves was sought because flight attendants feel vulnerable, even though the airline doesn’t fly to Africa and health officials say the risk of contamination to passengers and airline flight crews is very low and there have been no cases reported in Canada.

“I don’t think the risk is too elevated but the concerns are (on people’s) minds,” he said in an interview.

The Public Health Agency of Canada is working with the Canada Border Services Agency to identify travellers who have visited the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and are entering any of Canada’s six major airports.

As of last Friday, all such travellers must undergo a mandatory health assessment, including checks for things like fever, from a Public Health Agency quarantine officer.

A total of 76 travellers arriving in Toronto and Montreal between Sept. 26 and Oct. 10 were pulled aside for further examination. None was found to have been infected with Ebola.

But the union said flight attendants are unlikely to know if a passenger is contagious as the incubation period without symptoms, such as fever or body aches, can last up to 21 days.

The approval from Air Canada regarding disposable gloves is in line with similar actions by Canadian operators such as Air Transat.

WestJet Airlines (TSX:WJA) said it allows flight attendants to use protective gloves at the employee’s discretion. The Calgary-based airline said it is also adding more secure nitrile gloves in addition to vinyl gloves on aircraft and in crew rooms. Porter Airlines also said it makes gloves available for crew.

Concern within the airline industry increased earlier this week with news that a nurse later diagnosed with Ebola after treating an infected Liberian man in Dallas had flown on a plane full of passengers. Health officials have downplayed the possibility that any of the 132 passengers on Frontier Airlines Flight 1143 from Cleveland to Dallas-Fort Worth could have been infected because the nurse showed no Ebola symptoms during the flight.

Nonetheless, U.S. public health officials were notifying other passengers.

Ebola isn’t the first potential threat facing airline workers, coming after the avian flu and SARS.

“I think the entire airline industry will have to reinvent measures to realize that more and more people are travelling in exotic destinations and a simple glove can even prevent (even) the winter flu,” Cournoyer said.

Industry observers don’t believe heightened fears about Ebola will reduce passenger demand in Canada as it did more than a decade ago with the deadly SARS outbreak.

WestJet said it doesn’t expect any negative impact on travel demand in Canada since most people are aware the risk of transmission is low.

Spokesman Robert Palmer said the airline follows existing procedures for the sanitation of aircraft that meet Health Canada requirements. It also informs front-line employees about screening procedures to ensure the appropriate assessment of symptomatic passengers before they board the aircraft.

Robert Kokonis, president of airline consulting firm AirTrav Inc., expects the impact could increase if an infected person that visited West Africa slips through Canadian screening efforts, or if a passenger on the Frontier Airlines plane that carried an infected U.S. nurse falls ill.

“That could potentially change the impact but right now (there’s) very, very minimal impact,” he said in an interview.

On Wednesday, Ottawa said a team of health experts and epidemiologists is standing by should Ebola arrive in Canada.

Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose said Canada’s experience in dealing with public health issues including SARS, H1N1 and H5N1 has strenghtened Canada’s preparedness for publich health risks or outbreaks.

“I want to remind Canadians there are no direct flights into Canada from the affected countries in Africa. All international points of entry into Canada are routinely monitored 24/7,” she said in a statement on Wednesday.

The World Health Organization says the number of deaths from Ebola is expected to climb above 4,500 in Africa.

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