American Airlines pilots sue to halt flights to China

Masked people at the Hong Kong International Airport on Jan. 21.
Masked people at the Hong Kong International Airport on Jan. 21.
(Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

Citing a serious health threat from the coronavirus outbreak in China, the pilots association for American Airlines filed a lawsuit in Texas, asking a judge to compel the carrier to immediately halt all flights to the country.

The Allied Pilots Assn., which represents the 15,000 pilots of the world’s largest air carrier, asked a district court judge Thursday to approve an injunction to stop further flights until more information is known about the outbreak, which has been declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization and has killed 171 people and infected 8,000 people on four continents.

The lawsuit accuses American Airlines of “negligently and intentionally exposing its members to the coronavirus, a potentially fatal, communicable disease through its continued operation of flights to and from China.”

American Airlines announced Wednesday that it was suspending daily flights between Los Angeles International Airport and Shanghai Pudong Airport as well as LAX and Beijing Capital International Airport from Feb. 9 to March 27.

In addition to those flights, American Airlines operates daily round-trip routes between LAX and Hong Kong as well as daily round-trip routes between Dallas/Fort Worth and Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong.

In response to the lawsuit, the airline issued a statement saying, “We are in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and global public health officials to make sure we are taking all necessary precautions for our customers and team members.”


The union representing the flight attendants on American Airlines issued a statement Thursday supporting the lawsuit.

“Every precaution must be taken to safeguard the health of our American Airlines crew members and passengers,” said Lori Bassani, president of the Assn. of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents 28,000 flight attendants at the airline. “Until we know more and can be sure that all crew and passengers will be safe from this quickly spreading illness, we are urgently calling on American Airlines and the federal government to err on the side of caution and halt all flights to and from China.”

“Our safety is not for sale. We stand with our pilots.”

The World Health Organization announced Thursday that the outbreak had spread to more than a dozen countries, describing it as an “extraordinary event” after the number of cases soared tenfold in a week.

The outbreak has played havoc with the airline industry, which has in the past few years increased its flights to and from China to serve a growing middle class with a taste for international travel and big-budget spending. The average Chinese tourist spends more than $6,000 per trip to the U.S., according to the U.S. Travel Assn.

In response to the outbreak, Delta Air Lines cut daily flights to Beijing and Shanghai in half, down to 21 flights a week, between Feb. 6 and April 30, and includes LAX to Shanghai flights. United Airlines announced it would cut 24 flights between hub cities in the U.S. and China, starting Saturday through Feb. 8 to Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

British Airways and Asian budget carriers Lion Air and Seoul Air suspended flights to China while several other airlines — including Finnair, Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific and Singapore-based Jetstar Asia — reduced the number of flights.

The lawsuit by the Allied Pilots Assn. said flight crews are required to stay on the ground in China for 32 hours between flights to comply with federal rest regulations. The lawsuit said the flights and the time spent in China create “potential exposure.”