The Zika virus has become a regional epidemic in certain destinations all over the world. Now many flight attendants and other airline staff are resisting the compulsion to land in these places. At this point, airlines are allowing staff to “opt out” of flights to areas where Zika outbreaks have been reported. However, these locations include popular vacation destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The opt-outs come with conditions. United said it would allow pregnant flight attendants the option of withdrawing from assignments, but did not elaborate if these were switches or voluntarily approved loss of work.
“The safety of our employees is paramount and providing this option was the right thing to do under these circumstances,” United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson told reporters.
Delta took the options one step further, allowing attendants to swap out assignments for flights to other destinations. Delta spokesmen told the media a “small number” of crew members had taken advantage of the swap option.
It’s an interesting public relations conundrum. The World Health Organization is already classifying the Zika outbreak as a public health emergency of “international concern.” Estimates of current spread include roughly 4 million infected people over the next year. Meanwhile, the impacted areas are well-traveled and popular with American and European tourists.
While current recommendations against travel from the CDC are limited to pregnant women, the news isn’t good for anyone who depends on travel or tourism in those destinations. When it comes to childbearing, nearly everyone is wired to be “better safe than sorry.” No one wants to put themselves or their future children at risk, whether they are currently pregnant or not.
Doubling down on the fear escalation, the US Department of Defense recently said it would offer a voluntary relocation to pregnant employees and their beneficiaries who are stationed in areas where Zika has been found.
Now that both the private and public sector are openly involved in leaving the area, there’s no way the tourism industry can avoid the PR crisis. They need to address this carefully, with a deft approach taking into consideration both the justifiable fears of the general public and the necessity of their businesses to continue operating without catastrophic losses.