Marc Goumbri,, 202.730.7269

Issued December 16, 2015

New GAO study highlights contracted airport workers concerns about the availability of training and access to equipment to control exposure to communicable diseases

Report finds comprehensive federal plan needed for U.S. aviation system's preparedness

WASHINGTON, D.C. –In a report released Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended that the Department of Transportation in concert with key stakeholders, should develop a national aviation-preparedness plan for responding to the threat of communicable diseases.

The report was produced in response to a Congressional request for a review of how prepared the US aviation system is to respond to potential communicable disease threats from abroad such as the recent Ebola epidemic.

The report stated: “a national aviation preparedness plan could serve as the basis for testing communication mechanisms among responders to ensure those mechanisms are effective prior to a communicable disease outbreak as well as to provide the basis for ensuring that airport and airline staff receive appropriate training and equipment to reduce their risk of exposure to communicable diseases during an outbreak.”

The report also highlighted the concerns of workers employed by contract aviation service firms – including contract workers who clean aircraft -- about the availability of training and access to equipment to control exposure to communicable diseases.

Airport workers play a critical role in infection control efforts within the U.S. aviation system. Cabin cleaners and wheelchair attendants in particular provide services that help minimize risks of possible contamination and provide services that protect travelers, other airport workers and the general public from possible infection. However, these contract workers, whose employers pay low wages that lead to high turnover in these jobs, often assume those critical responsibilities with little to no training from their employers and the airlines they serve, or without the crucial information they need to protect themselves and the traveling public.

“All of the employees we spoke with from two contracted aviation-services firms that conduct aircraft cabin cleaning said that after incidents when a traveler became ill during a flight, the cabin crew does not always notify them of potentially infectious bodily fluids that had contaminated the aircraft,” the GAO report notes. However, “in its general infection-control guidance to airlines, CDC recommends that cabin crews notify cleaning crews of where and how ill passengers may have contaminated the aircraft and remind cleaning crews that additional personal protective equipment may be required. Given that it is typically unclear whether or not an illness that develops during a flight is contagious, CDC recommends treating any bodily fluid as potentially infectious regardless of whether or not an identified communicable disease outbreak threatens to spread to the United States.”

The report also noted that a record of violations of state and federal occupational health standards by contracted aviation-services employers provide support to workers’ concerns that aviation service providers do not always ensure their workers have access to necessary training and protective equipment.

To bring attention to their plight, more than 200 contracted cabin cleaners at LaGuardia Airport in New York City went on strike last year over unhealthy and unsafe working conditions, and to protest unfair labor practices. This toxic environment included lack of protection from possible exposure to Ebola and other infectious diseases.

“When I clean bathrooms, I come into contact with tampons, which I have to grab with my hand—with a glove that’s so cheap that it breaks easily,” Wendy Arellano, an Air Serv Cabin cleaner, told the Guardian while on strike last year. “I come into contact with feces, a lot of feces and vomit. And we have to clean those bathrooms spotless because they audit those planes.”

According to the GAO, “Aircraft cleaners we spoke with said that cleaning crews often have limited time to clean an aircraft before the boarding process begins for the next flight, and so may need to request additional time to conduct additional cleaning necessary to decontaminate the aircraft.”

Last October, SEIU launched the first-ever national infectious disease preparedness trainings program to ensure airport workers are aware of the need for—and approaches to—infectious disease preparedness by providing health and safety trainings. The trainings were made possible with the assistance of a grant from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The full GAO report is available at to

For more on SEIU’s efforts to provide contracted airport workers with infectious diseases training, please contact Marc Goumbri at 202.730.7269 or


Across the country, airport workers are coming together through Airport Workers United, a movement of employees and their allies, raising their voices for $15 and union rights to make our airports safe and secure for passengers, staff and our communities. By sticking together, speaking out for change, protesting, and even going on strike, they have won wage increases in Los Angeles, New York City, Newark, NJ, Minneapolis, Boston, Philadelphia, and Fort Lauderdale, FL. Now, more than 53,000 airport workers nationwide have either received wage increases or other improvements, including healthcare, paid sick leave and worker retention policies.