- Flight attendants’ union calls on airline to expand policy that allows crew on mainland routes to protect themselves
- Employees express concern about spending hours trapped in plane with passengers who may have come from Wuhan
Cathay Pacific flight attendants are fighting for the right to wear face masks on all flights as the Wuhan coronavirus spreads, with their union warning against the "catastrophic" effects of waiting until a staff member fell ill.
On Tuesday, with the virus already infecting people overseas, the airline said staff flying to mainland China could all wear masks, after it earlier implemented the policy on its daily flights to the central Chinese city.
But, the Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union, which represents about 7,000 or the airlines 12,000 cabin crew, said that wasn't enough, and called for it to be extended worldwide.
Crew members said it was a basic human right they be allowed to wear masks in the face of the new deadly virus that has killed six people in the mainland and has spread to Japan, Taiwan and Thailand.
The union's internal vice-chairwoman, Amber Suen, said because there were confirmed cases outside the mainland the policy had to be expanded.
In a statement, the union said it had received a large number of emails and messages from members expressing concern and anxiety about the virus.
"All of them are worried about the risk they are taking every time they go to work," the union said.
"It is time for the company to properly address their concerns and allow cabin crew to wear masks on all flights.
"Such a measure does not only ease the anxiety of frontline employees, but also sends a message to the public that Cathay Pacific is doing everything to ensure the safety of the passengers."
The statement added it would be "too late and too painful" for the airline to let them wear masks after employees had been infected, and said the outcome could be "catastrophic".
China warns officials not to cover up spread of Wuhan virus
The new strain of coronavirus started attacking people in the Wuhan city last month and can be transmitted from person to person.
As of Tuesday evening, there were about 300 confirmed cases in mainland China, from Wuhan, Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. There were single cases in Taiwan, Japan, and Thailand.
In Hong Kong, there have been 118 suspected cases but none was confirmed to be the new virus. Of the 118 people, 88 have already been discharged from hospital.
In a statement, Cathay said it was monitoring the situation closely and would continue to coordinate with the health authorities in Hong Kong and in all the ports to which it flies.
"As required by the Hong Kong health authorities, we are now distributing health declaration forms and will be making face masks and antiseptic wipes available at the boarding gate to passengers travelling from Wuhan to Hong Kong," it said.
"Our frontline staff are reminded to maintain good personal and environmental hygiene, and to remain alert and vigilant while being on the lookout for passengers presenting with infectious disease symptoms."
A Cathay flight attendant who asked not to be named said colleagues were very worried.
"I have just talked to some of my colleagues who have children about this and they are now wearing masks at home. The incubation period is supposed to be 14 days and thus they are fearful they have been infected but they just don't know yet," the staff member said.
The crew member said those flying long haul were as worried as those flying mainland routes, because there could be passengers who have recently been to Wuhan on board.
"Some of our colleagues would be trapped with those people for 16 hours on some flights," they said.
During the measles outbreak last year, all Cathay cabin crew were allowed to wear face masks on all flights.
Carol Ng Man-yee, an executive committee member of the Hong Kong Cabin Crew Federation, which represents numerous airline employees, said flight attendants had the right to wear a mask.
She believed airlines did not want crew to wear masks because management felt it gave passengers the impression the plane was not clean.
"But the airlines need to understand that no passengers are going to think that the flight attendants are sick or dirty because they are wearing a mask. It's just because the spaces inside cabins are tight and masks are needed to prevent germs from spreading," she said.
Wuhan virus has spread to 20 other cities in China, say Hong Kong experts
After the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003, which killed 299 people in Hong Kong, Ng said some airlines had adopted the practise of letting crew members wear a mask, only if they had to deal with sick passengers in their cabins.
Meanwhile, the Hong Thai Travel agency has cancelled 10 tours going to or passing by Wuhan from Wednesday to the end of March, affecting about 200 people.
Alice Chan Cheung Lok-yee, executive director of the Travel Industry Council, said January and February were not popular months for visits to Wuhan, and tourists usually travelled there for the cherry blossoms in March.
Separately, the China Railway Corporation announced it would waive administration fees for travellers who had bought train tickets to leave or go to Wuhan, but would like to change their plans. They will able to apply for a refund from Tuesday to Friday.
The MTR Corporation said it had not received any notice from the mainland rail operator on rearranging ticket sales or services of the two daily express trains going to the city through Wuhan.
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