Airlines choose money over safety with relaxed COVID policies

Though reducing isolation periods saves airlines money, it is the most irresponsible choice that could lead to more employees and customers getting sick.

Jacob van Cleef

Former Consumer Watchdog, Associate, PIRG

The major U.S. airlines are understaffed. Even though that issue has been acknowledged throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the 15-day period to end 2021 and begin 2022 when there were more than 1,000 flights canceled at the last minute each day that demonstrated the travel pain understaffing can cause. By comparison, 134 flights on average were canceled per day during January 2021.

There are two main potential solutions to the problem. One solution is to reduce the number of flights proactively, so customers have time to change plans or book a flight that will take off. JetBlue was one of the first airlines to be proactive in response to the mass cancelations and canceled flights ahead of time during late December and early January. The other solution is to increase the hours worked by hiring more workers or paying employees for extra hours, even if that means overtime pay. United Airlines made the news for offering triple pay for pilots working overtime.

The new CDC isolation guidelines created another option for airlines: bring potentially sick employees back to work sooner. Even before the change of guidelines, airlines were calling for reduced isolation time. Delta, JetBlue and the lobbying group for the airlines, Airlines for America, wrote letters to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asking for the change. Southwest, Alaska and Delta adopted new isolation protocols for their employees who test positive, reducing the isolation period to five days. That is a mistake.

The new guidelines received backlash from doctors across the country, including the American Medical Association. The major problem for doctors is that people can spread COVID for different lengths of time, on a case-by-case basis, but there is no testing requirement to leave quarantine.

Since Southwest, Alaska and Delta reduced the COVID isolation period pay to five days, that means employees could be going to work while sick. Employees are paid during the isolation period. Delta’s policy extends to seven days if the employee tests positive after five days. If you take a Delta flight, a flight attendant could have tested positive as recently as three days prior. That is an unnecessary danger. Though reducing isolation periods would cost the airlines the least amount of money – because they can avoid potentially paying overtime to healthy employees instead of canceling flights and issue refunds – it is the most irresponsible choice that could lead to more employees and customers getting sick.

A safe choice would be to isolate for 10 days still. That’s the policy Southwest, Alaska and Delta used to have for its employees, and they should return to it. There are safer ways to deal with the understaffing issue, as demonstrated by some airlines. At the end of the day, these policies affect people’s lives. Airlines should not function just on the best ways to make money in the short term but also to make sure they are the reason infections and deaths aren’t as high as they could be. Travelers should not get sick from flying due to an airline pushing their employees to work while potentially being sick.

For those looking to book flights, take this into consideration. Don’t fly the airlines that change to five-day quarantines for their employees, if you can avoid it. If the airlines don’t demonstrate a level of care you want, they don’t deserve your business. Whenever traveling, make sure to be as safe as possible to reduce potential COVID exposure. 


Jacob van Cleef

Former Consumer Watchdog, Associate, PIRG