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A Thoughtful Approach to Service During Omicron

Date: January 11, 2022

In response to the advocacy of AFA, Alaska Airlines management will reduce some of its scheduled inflight services through the end of January. The decision of Alaska Airlines management addressed the concerns of Flight Attendants during the past few weeks where the spread of the Omicron variant has been overwhelming.

As we are learning, the new Omicron variant is less severe than either the original COVID-19 or Delta variants, but is much more transmissible, even among those who are fully vaccinated and boosted. First hand we’ve seen that it has led to a record number of positive cases around the world, including among airline workers, resulting in higher than average sick calls and flight delays and cancellations.

The AFA leadership of the Alaska Airlines MEC expressed reservations about Omicron and its high transmissibility rate to management at Alaska Airlines. AFA advocated to reduce the amount of time Flight Attendants interacted with passengers in order to reduce opportunities for potential transmission of the virus.  In response, the carrier decided to limit in-flight services to one beverage service in the main cabin on all flights, and no meal service at all on medium-haul trips through January at which time it will be re-evaluated.

In a similar manner, the AFA leadership of the United Airlines MEC has advocated for a number of items. In response to United management’s decision to return services including pre-departure beverage services and other component enhancements to the inflight service that increase Flight Attendant interaction with passengers, the United MEC officers approached United management about curtailing services in an ongoing effort to reduce opportunities for transmission of the virus. Management is currently reviewing our request as part of an overall safety risk assessment.

It should be noted, United management led the industry in delaying implementation of reducing from ten (10) days to five (5) days, the quarantine period following a positive COVID test.

While we understand United’s desire to “lead the pack” and we can get behind and fully support the decision to delay shortening the quarantine period because this serves both our passengers and Flight Attendants, greater enhancements to service components amidst one of the most severe COVID surges to date, is something that needs to be challenged. And, we are challenging the thought process behind this decision-making especially as instances of positive COVID tests are on the rise.

Perhaps a matter of bad timing, these decisions stand in stark contrast during a period when management has raised concern about increased sick leave calls, all the while Flight Attendants are on hold for excessive periods of time to address calling on sick leave, for reassignments resulting from cancellations and a myriad of other issues.

Taking things even one step further, United has also announced a trial for an expanded meal service starting next month in select markets. The details of what those “modifications” look like have not been revealed, but the message from United is “With the help of the team’s outstanding collaboration and feedback, we’ve made modifications to the service and will be doing live tests on select markets starting February 1. These live tests will give us detailed, in-the-moment data for our final service.”

While we can all agree that increasing the level of service for our passengers needs to be a priority, priorities can and should be weighed against other external factors.  We are hopeful that United’s assessment of the risks associated with the continued introduction of these service enhancements at this time outweighs their introduction during this period of increasing COVID transmission.    

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