Exclusive: United Airlines offers to re-assign pregnant crew from Zika-hit routes

United Airlines has offered to re-assign pregnant flight attendants concerned about contracting the Zika virus from routes to Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a memo seen by Reuters.

The previously unreported policy, communicated in an internal memo on Jan. 28, shows how the mosquito-borne virus, linked to thousands of birth defects in Brazil, looms as an issue not just for airline passengers but for crew as well.

The memo, which also extended the re-assignment offer to flight attendants seeking to become pregnant, said those who did switch routes would face no repercussions.

“We have immediate concern about our members’ health,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, when asked for comment on the memo.

“This issue is changing at a fairly rapid pace, (and) it’s important that those updates are ongoing,” she said, adding that airlines appeared to be responding faster to employee concerns than they did during past outbreaks, such as the spread of Ebola in 2014.

Airlines and hotel chains have said it is too early to tell if the Zika epidemic is affecting bookings.

However, top U.S. carriers, including United, are offering refunds for flights to impacted areas. Travel agents also say “babymooners” – parents-to-be taking last-hurrah vacations – have backed out of trips and changed itineraries.

Concern about Zika has been magnified in recent days by a reported case of sexual transmission in Texas as well as a global health emergency declared by the World Health Organization.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged pregnant women to consider delaying travel to locations hit by Zika, for which there is no treatment or vaccine.

“The safety of our employees and customers is paramount, and we are providing this option because it’s the right thing to do,” said Charles Hobart, spokesman for parent United Continental Holdings Inc. “United has similar options available for pilots who choose not to fly to Zika-affected regions.”

The second-largest U.S. airline by capacity declined to address whether it was concerned about crew shortages resulting from the notice. United has some 20,000 flight attendants worldwide.

The memo said flight attendants can drop their re-assigned trips, without pay, if United is able to find replacements for them.

United also declined to say how many flight attendants have asked to switch their assignments.

Swiss International Air Lines said that it would not require female crew to fly to Sao Paulo, according to a Tuesday report from the Associated Press. A spokesman for parent Deutsche Lufthansa AG could not immediately confirm the report.

(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in New York; Editing by Christian Plumb, Bernard Orr)

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