NBAA urges operators to plan for potential H1N1 outbreak

 - November 2, 2009, 9:07 AM

The swine flu, which has already reached the pandemic phase 6, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), could prove to be vexing for charter and business aircraft operators who often fly worldwide on short notice.

The WHO defines the H1N1 pandemic as “a worldwide epidemic of a disease”
of moderate global severity. Individual countries may encounter different levels of impact with H1N1, different timing of outbreaks and different effects on the economics of health systems.

Participants in an NBAA webinar early last month learned that employers can be placed in a difficult position, having to strike a delicate balance among the competing concerns of protecting employee health, avoiding unnecessary panic, preserving medical privacy and maintaining productivity.

Greg Ripple, an attorney with NBAA member company Miller Johnson, said, “Business aviation faces specific challenges due to its transitory and international nature.” He suggested companies consider creating a pandemic disease plan in concert with representatives of human resources, information technology, executive management and other critical parts of the business.

Companies should assess their operations, identify key personnel and essential services, and run hypotheticals to anticipate problems. One of the biggest challenges, Ripple said, would be if an entire school district has to be closed and a large number of employees have to take off to care for their children.

He presented a survey of the employment laws–including OSHA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the National Labor Relations Act–and pointed out that they were not written with infectious diseases in mind. “Different agencies interpret different laws,” he added.

Preventing the Spread of Illness

Miller Johnson recommends that employers inform all employees about influenza H1N1 virus symptoms, how it is spread and how proper handwashing, cough etiquette and social distancing practices can prevent an outbreak; require employees to stay home if they have symptoms of the swine flu; direct employees to notify a specified representative if they have been diagnosed with H1N1, have been directly exposed to the virus or have recently traveled to Mexico; review the firm’s FMLA practices, attendance rules, leave-of-absence policies, safety policies and return-to-work procedures; and make sure HR staff and supervisors are aware of the steps to take if H1N1 virus symptoms are reported in the workplace.

Swine flu symptoms are similar to regular human seasonal influenza: fever, headache, cough, runny nose, sore throat, lethargy, loss of appetite and body aches. Some reports say people with H1N1 experience nausea, vomiting and diarrhea more often than is usual with seasonal flu.

Because aircraft provide confined workspaces for a duration of time, and global business opportunities might require international travel to areas where the H1N1 impact may vary in severity, Ripple said a company needs to plan for the possibility that a crewmember or passenger gets sick. It is estimated that before the swine flu epidemic is over, up to 40 percent of the population will have contracted it, and that has major implications for business aviation–both medically and legally.

Companies need to prepare for the ramifications if a crew gets quarantined overseas or becomes ill on a multi-day domestic trip. What kind of policies should they be thinking about to prepare for the worst case?

“First of all, you need a contingency plan if it’s your crew,” said Ripple, who specializes in aviation and employment issues. He points out that if illness of the crew grounds the airplane, “You are going to need to find a way to get your passengers, who are paying you or are high-level executives in your company, to where they want to go.”

He said those contingency plans could be as basic as having the contractual right to pay the commercial airfare to get passengers home or to their next destination.
Dr. Paulo Alves, Medaire v-p of aviation and maritime health worldwide, explained that the flu is more likely to affect younger people and pregnant women, while those over 65 may have some immunity. Fifty to 80 percent of victims probably will have underlying health conditions, and the fatality ratio will probably be less than 1 percent.

While H1N1 is becoming increasingly resistant to Tamiflu, most disinfectants will kill the virus. Those infected can limit the spread of the illness by staying home if ill, following Centers for Disease Control guidelines, practicing “cough etiquette” (cough into the crook of your arm rather than into your hand), wearing a mask in flight and staying home for 24 hours after the flu is gone. However, “There is no way we can really avoid an epidemic,” Alves conceded.