Masks on a plane: Flight attendants face coronavirus fears

Trishia Billones, Katrina Domingo, Jessica Fenol and Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 31 2020 03:17 PM | Updated as of Mar 03 2020 12:35 PM

A woman passes through an immigration counter at Manila airport. Authorities have intensified screening at air terminals to prevent the spread of a new coronavirus strain from China. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News/file

MANILA -- Wearing face masks and gloves and with disinfectant sprays always handy, flight attendants tread with caution as a new coronavirus strain from China reshapes air travel.

Some flight crew, who spoke to ABS-CBN News, suggested stopping China flights for the meantime as governments around the world move to arrest its spread. President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday banned travelers from the outbreak's epicenter, Hubei province.

A Filipina flight attendant of a Middle East carrier told ABS-CBN News that she once had a passenger who was shivering the entire flight and had to be assisted with a blanket. She now brings her own face mask and a bottle of alcohol to clean her hands.

"I feel scared, but I try to be calm on flight despite all the news spreading around. It's scary in a sense that we don't know who is affected by the virus," said the flight attendant, who refused to be identified for lack of authorization to speak to the media.

Another flight attendant of a Middle East airline makes sure to take her vitamins and get enough rest before flights to help strengthen her immune system.

"I feel unsafe for myself and for my colleagues... I know we have precautionary measures but it is not enough and it does not ensure us that we will not be infected," she said.

The Philippines on Thursday confirmed its first novel coronavirus case, a female tourist from Wuhan, where the pathogen was believed to have originated. China reported 200 deaths and nearly 10,000 cases, prompting the World Health Organization to declare a global emergency.

Health authorities have reminded the public to wash their hands frequently and properly cover their mouths when sneezing. Transport regulators directed public utility drivers to wear face masks. Ride-hailing firm Grab urged its drivers to do the same.

Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific both trimmed flight frequencies to China. AirAsia has suspended all flights to Wuhan. All three carriers offered free flight changes to those with China bookings.

AirAsia provides masks and sanitizers to all ground and flight crew and coordinates with transport and health authorities, said its Philippines' spokesman, David De Castro.

"The priority of AirAsia remains safety of its guests and staff. All efforts are directed towards this," he told ABS-CBN News.

'DIRTIEST' PLACE

A Filipina flight attendant of a local airline said some of her colleagues have filed leaves to avoid being assigned to a China flight. During a recent hop to Jinjiang, she said there was only one passenger.

Crammed in a small, airtight space for hours, she said, "If one passenger is sick, it would be so easy to get caught with the same sickness."

Another flight attendant of a Philippine airline said China flights should be stopped for a "reasonable time" until authorities find ways to fully disinfect aircraft.

"An aircraft is one of the dirtiest places, even before this virus. It gets cleaned very fast after flights," she said.

"Ako, saktong fear lang, extra precaution lang ako. Mas may fear parents ko," she said.

(I have just the right amount of fear. I take extra precautions. My parents are more afraid for me.)

Airlines make money from Chinese passengers, who book in large groups. Cabin crew need to pay them extra attention, said a Filipino flight attendant of a Southeast Asian carrier.

"Yes, we want to boost our tourism industry but now it's different," said the flight attendant.

Kristelle Batchelor, a reserve flight attendant, said she was reconsidering a side trip to Thailand on the way home to the Philippines. Thailand also has confirmed coronavirus cases.

"The symptoms of this virus are only visible after two weeks and I think that part scares me the most. It’s like a silent killer," she said.

Batchelor said she was hopeful airlines would hear out their employees with apprehensions over flying to destinations with confirmed cases of the pathogen.

She advised passengers to wash their hands, carry sanitizers and wear masks, mindful of the enclosed space in airplanes.

"With this virus, our already reduced flying to some destinations would be even further lessened and I think that would result in a decline," she said.