Pilots and flight attendants are demanding airlines stop flights to China as health officials declare a global emergency over the rapidly spreading coronavirus, with American Airlines’ pilots filing a lawsuit seeking an immediate halt.
China has reported nearly 10,000 cases and 213 deaths, but the virus has spread to 18 countries often by plane passengers.
The Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents American Airlines pilots, cited “serious, and in many ways still unknown, health threats posed by the coronavirus” in a lawsuit filed in Texas, where the airline is based.
American said it was taking precautions against the virus but had no immediate comment on the lawsuit. On Wednesday it announced flight cancellations from Los Angeles to Beijing and Shanghai starting next month, but is continuing flights from Dallas.
APA President Eric Ferguson urged pilots assigned to U.S.-China flights to decline the assignment. In a statement, the American Airlines’ flight attendants union said they supported the pilots’ lawsuit and called on the company and the U.S. government to “err on the side of caution and halt all flights to and from China.”
Pilots at United Airlines, the largest U.S. airline to China, concerned for their safety will be allowed to drop their trip without pay, according to a Wednesday memo from their union to members.
United announced on Thursday another 332 U.S.-China flight cancellations between February and March 28, though it will continue operating roundtrip flights from San Francisco to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
The American Airlines pilot lawsuit came as an increasing number of airlines stopped their flights to mainland China, including Air France KLM SA, British Airways, Germany’s Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic.
Other major carriers have kept flying to China, but protective masks and shorter layovers designed to reduce exposure have done little to reassure crews.
A U.S. flight attendant who recently landed from one major Chinese city said a big concern is catching the virus and spreading it to families, or getting quarantined while on a layover.
“I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation until I went there,” she said on condition of anonymity, describing general paranoia on the return flight, with every passenger wearing a mask. “Now I feel like I’m on a 14-day countdown.”
Thai Airways is hosing its cabins with disinfectant spray between China flights and allowing crew to wear masks and gloves.