Within 15 minutes of my 6:00 am flight from Austin to Baltimore, I knew it was going to be a long, COLD, 3-hour trip. I’d already turned off the overhhad vents to stop the frigid air from blowing on me, and contorted myself into a ball on my seat trying to stay warm. As I visualized myself lounging in the hot sun, my light slumber was interrupted by a “DING!” coming from some seat ahead of me. Two rows up, a passenger had depressed the flight attendant call button to summon the Southwest Airlines crew member.
“May I get a blanket?” the woman passenger asked.
Like me, she must have felt the airplane was doubling as a meat locker.
” No, we don’t have blankets anymore. The CDC made us get rid of them.”
I opened one eye to get a glimpse of the person who made that curious remark. It was indeed one of the flight attendants. Unfortunately, she has the story wrong.
During the 2009-2010 influenza season when infectious disease specialists were particularly concerned about the possiblity of an H1N1 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued “Interim Guidance for Management of Influenza-Like Illness aboard Commercial Aircraft.” The document offered a variety of recommendations for controlling the spread of the virus—from discouraging fever-ridden passengers from boarding airplanes, encouraging passengers with symptoms to wear a face mask and dispose of used tissues in a plastic bag, to frequent handwashing and providing sick leave for airline crew—-but the word “blanket” doesn’t appear anywhere in the document.
The decision to remove the airplane blankets was Southwest Airline’s call. A company spokesperson said in June 2009:
“We recently removed blankets and pillows from the aircraft in the last month or so, when the concerns about the swine flu came up. We took them out thinking we would replace them.”
The Houston Chronicle’s Shannon Buggs reported that the blankets and pillows never made it back into the planes’ overhead bins.
“Southwest’s accountants are enjoying extra cash on the balance sheet. The savings partly come from quicker cleanups of cabins that allow for faster turnarounds between flights. Plus, linens add weight to the aircraft. Their removal lightens planes’ loads, which translates into slightly increased fuel efficiencies. Spread out over the entire fleet, those incremental fuel savings add up.”
Buggs indicated that the flight attendants’ also supported the change, with their union’s spokesperson commenting:
“Those blankets have frequent-flier miles on them, to say the least. A lot of us wear gloves to handle the blankets and pillows because we notice quite a few stains on them.”
On my flight, the crew member’s response “CDC made us get rid of the blankets” may have simply been misinformed. Or it could be the tendency by some to blame a supposed government regulation when they have to bear news that may not be well received. As I wrote in a post last week, I’ve heard business owners and others invoked a “that’s against OSHA regulations” in situations where there is no such OSHA rule. I guess they think it will be better tolerated than saying “our company has a policy against that.”
In the case of the airline blankets, what about:
“we thought those blankets were unsanitary so we don’t keep them onboard any more.”
For me, the lesson is simple: throw a sweater in my carry-on bag.