How are airlines stopping the spread of Swine Flu on planes? (Hint: Begins with “p” and rhymes with “hell”)

purellIt looks as if the airlines have no intention of loosening their inflexible change fee requirements to prevent a Swine Flu outbreak on planes. The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed that it has begun testing hand sanitizers for flammability, and at least one source close to the agency says carriers intend to deploy bottles of the gel on their planes as flu season gets underway.

That’s right, the airline industry’s answer to the H1N1 problem is apparently Purell on planes.

Charlie Leocha of the Consumer Travel Alliance explained what should happen this flu season in a recent op-ed.

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So far, the airline industry’s sole response has been to remove pillows and blankets from many aircraft. Plus, spokespersons for the airlines have said, “If you are sick, stay home.” Yet, our airlines are actually punishing passengers who choose to not fly when infected. The airlines can and should change policy to help slow the spread of H1N1.

Just today, Leocha followed up with a letter from a Delta Air Lines passenger infected with H1N1. She was told to pay a $200 change fee — or fly while infected. The reader’s husband had a few words for Delta:

The policy of charging customers under these circumstances is founded on a cynical assumption that the customer is dishonest (potentially lying about her illness), and puts the burden of proof on a person who is extremely ill to disregard medical best practices and endanger others at the same time. While we have chosen to absorb Delta’s flight cancellation fee, it is inevitable that some Delta passengers will choose [to fly] since it is cheapest, exposing other Delta passengers to the flu.

Curiously, the airline industry’s reluctance to ease up on its profitable change fees contradicts advice from the Centers for Disease Control for its own air crews. From the advisory:

If you are sick with flu-like illness, CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities (Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.) Keep away from others as much as possible. This is to keep from making others sick.

It probably goes without saying that if passengers are worried about H1N1, then their employees are really concerned. My colleague Heather Poole, herself a flight attendant, covered the Swine Flu fears earlier this year.

“Honestly, I have no problem helping sick passengers,” she wrote. “But at the same time I really don’t want to get sick and bring whatever it is they may have (or may not have) home to my son.”

Giving passengers a squirt of Purell is like handing a firefighter a bottle of Evian: Too little, too late.

But if this turns out to be part of an overall effort to keep passengers healthy on planes — an initiative that includes more flexible change fees, better training for crewmembers to spot H1N1 symptoms, and an awareness campaign for passengers — then I’ll be happy to eat my words.

Somehow, I doubt it is.

(Photo: authentiqONE/Flickr Creative Commons)