A European airline made an abrupt U-turn on Saturday night and relaxed its earlier ban on flight attendants wearing masks because of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.
Finnair's change of course came after its Hong Kong-based cabin crew members accused the airline of violating their basic human rights and putting the safety of the airline's employees and passengers at risk. The airline had initially insisted on the ban because wearing masks mid-flight was not a common practice in Europe.
"We have updated our policy regarding the crew's ability to wear masks when working on our flights, in line with the recommendation from Chinese authorities, who recommend that people in direct customer contact can wear masks as a precaution," the airline said in a Saturday evening statement.
"In this situation, Finnair crew members can, if they so wish, wear a mask while working on board."
It added that the airline would continue to monitor the situation and update its employees on how best to ensure the well-being of both themselves and the customers.
The decision came 19 hours after the airline stood by its mask ban in a statement to the Post, saying it was not a common practice in Europe and that no health authorities had recommended that flight attendants should wear masks at work.
Speaking before the latest decision, Emily Leung, chairwoman of the OH Cabin Crew Union, which represents some of Finnair's 180 flight attendants in the city, said: "For us Hong Kong staff who have been through the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak, we are very worried.
"Whenever I hear someone cough on a plane, I'm anxious. I have never washed my hands so often while at work."
As of Saturday afternoon, the virus had already killed 41 people in mainland China. There are 1,287 confirmed cases on the mainland, as well as in France, the United States, Thailand, South Korea, and other countries.
Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong's flagship airline, has since Wednesday allowed its flight attendants to wear face masks on all routes after a backlash from employees, who accused senior management of putting their safety at risk with its earlier stance. Taiwan's China Airlines earlier announced its staff could as well use the masks.
Leung added flight attendants were not qualified medical practitioners and so would find it difficult to establish whether passengers displayed symptoms of the new coronavirus, which was discovered following an outbreak of mystery pneumonia-like illness at the end of last month in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Some passengers had asked her and colleagues why they were not wearing masks at work.
Finnair has a worldwide workforce of about 2,000. Leung said she had so far not heard of any of the airline's Finland-based staff requesting to wear masks.
In its earlier statement on Friday night, Finnair said: "We do understand that some of our Asian crew members have wanted to wear a mask.
"But as mask wearing is not something that is widely done in Europe, nor is it recommended by health authorities, we have asked our crew to follow our normal policy where masks are not used by crew on board."
It added that crew members experiencing any symptoms would not sign up for duty.
"Health authorities have not recommended mask use as a means of preventing the spreading of the Wuhan virus," Finnair said.
"Instead, health authorities including the World Health Organisation have stressed the importance of regular handwashing and other normal precautions."
Carol Ng Man-yee, an executive committee member of the Hong Kong Cabin Crew Federation, which represents airline employees including some of Finnair's Hong Kong staff, said the carrier did not understand the severity of the crisis.
"Transport companies big and small are not restricting their employees' rights to wear masks. This is an epidemic and Finnair has the responsibility to ensure the occupational safety of its staff," Ng said.
She said some of Finnair's Hong Kong workforce had told her of passengers scolding flight attendants for not wearing masks and putting the safety of travellers at risk.
Ng also said she believed some airlines did not allow masks to be born because they could give passengers the impression the aircraft was not clean.
Finnair's Hong Kong flight attendants are hired by OSM Aviation.
The recruitment and management agency, which is headquartered in Norway, had not responded to a request for comment as of Saturday afternoon.
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