A national flight attendants union wants the Federal Aviation Administration to require U.S. airlines to develop and implement passenger-screening standards because of the swine flu scare.
The request, if granted, could be costly to an industry already reeling from a drop-off in demand due to the weak economy, though a union spokeswoman said later the proposal regarding screening is only meant to apply if recommended by appropriate health officials.
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA also asked the FAA in a letter Monday to order airlines to provide flight attendants with non-latex gloves and masks and to allow flight attendants with flu-like symptoms to call in sick but not have the absence counted against their allotted sick leave.
"We believe that the FAA administrator has the authority to issue such an order ... in light of the serious threat that this outbreak poses to flight attendants and passengers on flights into and out of affected areas," an AFA-CWA official said in the letter.
The letter added that protecting flight attendants "will reduce the risk of disease transmission for all aircraft occupants."
The AFA-CWA represents flight attendants at several airlines that offer flights to Mexico, including US Airways and United Airlines. A spokeswoman for the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots at several major U.S. carriers, did not return a call to the group's Washington offices Tuesday seeking comment.
So far, major airlines haven't publicly reported any illness among crew members due to the swine flu, and there have not been large numbers of absences due to staffers who don't want to fly to Mexico. While some passengers are changing or canceling their travel plans, flight operations among U.S. carriers remain on schedule.
Asked Tuesday about the AFA-CWA's requests, David Castelveter of the Air Transport Association, which represents U.S. airlines, said carriers are taking measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect the health of employees and passengers.
"If and when CDC makes such a recommendation, we will work with them to ensure implementation effectively and efficiently," Castelveter said.
But at least one major carrier, American Airlines, believes the request for passenger-screening standards would be redundant, time-consuming and costly if imposed by the FAA.
"I don't know if we should be the ones who should do this," American spokesman Tim Smith said.
Smith said departing passengers from Mexico are already screened at airport security checkpoints.
As for protective gear, Smith said the airline provides gloves and masks for employees to use if they need to tend to a sick person on board. However, he said, crew members are not supposed to wear the gear at other times.
"We've had no sick people on board any of our flights who have later tested positive for swine flu," Smith said.
American and American Eagle, both subsidiaries of Fort Worth, Texas-based AMR Corp., offer 42 roundtrip daily flights to 14 destinations in Mexico.
AFA-CWA spokeswoman Corey Caldwell said the flight attendants union has not heard from healthy members who don't want to fly to Mexico for fear of getting swine flu. She said in such a situation, the crew members, who are hourly employees, would not get paid. If they are sick, they have sick pay benefits, she noted.
She added that the union is not encouraging members to avoid flights to Mexico.
Delta Air Lines, the world's biggest airline operator, as of Tuesday afternoon had no flight cancellations related to the swine flu outbreak. Spokeswoman Betsy Talton repeated the airline's Monday statement that Atlanta-based Delta has seen minimal changes to customer bookings.