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A Flight Attendant Gives Us an Inside Look at the Airline Industry During Coronavirus

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Sarah Steeger is a flight attendant. Here, she tells us what it’s really like to work on an airplane during the coronavirus pandemic.

Passengers tend to pay more attention to us flight attendants during a bit of unexpected turbulence. The regard is mostly a thinly-veiled need for reassurance: Does this bumpiness feel normal? Will it last long? Are we scared? As we’re regular people—albeit ones trained to interpret clues about the environment and the first to hear potentially uncomfortable information—observing us makes sense. And while we may not be experts on coronavirus, our “office” is the busiest physical intersection of the world, and the pandemic’s effects are nothing if not “a bit of turbulence.” A look at what we’re seeing, feeling, and being told could certainly be revealing, too.

Brian, who works for American Airlines (as a general rule, crew members do not wish to reveal their last names due to airline media policies), says the airline “has done more than I thought they would in stating new procedures to clean planes [and] allow flight attendants to wear gloves and masks when applicable.” As for other airline actions, one pilot (who wished not to be identified) detailed that, “[My] airline has been doing a great job. They send out a daily update on the virus and its impact on our operations and keep reiterating the CDC protocols to protect ourselves. They have complied with route cancellations according to the government and have been open about the impacts, at least thus far.”

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“People are generally nicer, but it’s wild to see every customer on every flight scramble to their seat and pull out their wipes and wipe everything down.”

But other crew members say the updates are the bare corporate minimum and don’t address their fears. Domenica, a flight attendant for a U.S.-based carrier, says, “It would be nice to know what kind of plans they have for us if this gets out of hand.” Flight attendant Lauren agrees: “I’m not scared of getting sick. I’m scared of losing my job.”

Facebook groups where colleagues gather reveal even more of the micro-operations. Reports of under-provisioning of gloves, ineffective hand wipes (allegedly under the 60%-alcohol threshold for killing germs), and hand gel supplied only to destinations like Milan, Seoul, and Hong Kong, make repeat appearances. (Some of these issues may be the result of sourcing problems—which is one reason you shouldn’t expect to see airlines offering these products to passengers.)

Flying during the pandemic is described by crew members as “surreal,” “crazy,” and “bananas.” There’s little panic, but airports are empty at odd times of the day and everyone is nervous. Domenica reports, “People are generally nicer, but it’s wild to see every customer on every flight scramble to their seat and pull out their wipes and wipe everything down…but I think people forget about the overhead bins and those I feel are one of the grossest things on the plane.” She also notes crew members are going straight to their hotel rooms on layovers, no socializing.

All crews report that passengers wearing masks is common, but many are wearing them wrong. One pilot remarked that many people, “only have [the mask] covering their mouth and not their nose. Doesn’t really work well that way.”

Stories of stranded crew members in heavily-hit destinations are commendably rare. When Hong Kong and Seoul first made the news, my airline set up room service food credits at the layover hotels so crews could self-isolate. Next came a few complaints of 30-hour “duty days” resulting from working a 15-hour flight to Asia, then being shepherded directly back onto a return flight with no notice or choice. Technically, this is not permitted, but it speaks to how quickly the situation is developing and how decisive airlines have been. It makes for an alarming experience, but it beats being stranded abroad.

Flight attendants refusing to fly a destination has not been a notable issue. This reflects a generally-balanced attitude of “common-sense precautions, but not panic.” Brian says his company and union would handle this on a case-by-case basis but, “I feel very safe flying right now. Passengers and crew alike have a heightened sense of cleanliness… I have never seen as many passengers bringing wipes on board to clean their personal areas, wash hands, and generally be fastidious about personal hygiene, which is typically the exception, not the rule.”

“I have never seen as many passengers…generally be fastidious about personal hygiene, which is typically the exception, not the rule.”

Flight attendants are hyper-aware of our potential to be “super-spreaders.” The debate over whether to wear masks or gloves is on a continual loop. Domenica’s explanation is familiar: “I am not necessarily nervous about getting sick, I’m nervous about being a carrier to other people. I touch so many things and [am] constantly having face-to-face interactions with hundreds of people every day. I’m self-quarantining myself away from my grandparents, honestly from the public… I’m a little afraid to tell people what I do for a living at the moment. I’d hate to know that I was the one to make someone ill.”

There’s always a chaos-causing minority, of course. One flight attendant stated she’s eager for some time off not because she’s scared but because “my coworkers are driving me crazy thinking the world is ending.” This mirrors my personal dread of our crew Facebook groups due to, in particular, the few-but-persistent conspiracy spreaders.

The current harmony between airlines and crew members is refreshing, though I predict one point of friction: the variation and discrepancies of sick time/paid leave policies-in-progress. Spirit Airlines has promised that coronavirus-related absences (infection and/or directed isolation) won’t touch sick time, and United is offering paid leaves–for pilots. Flight attendants are similarly asking about protections in the event of infection/quarantine, and thus far the answer has been silence at best, with indications that the usual penalties for absence remain.

Discrepancies in the treatment between flight deck and cabin crew are nothing new, but rarely so potentially dire. I see no flight attendants lighting torches and grabbing pitchforks just yet. I think we’re in a watch-and-wait mode as policies emerge, hoping for parity (or consciences) to catch up. Only our executives could guess how long this contraction is sustainable.

The good news is, airlines are showing themselves to be nimble. Schedule changes are being implemented quickly but in short increments. The limited time periods are reassuring. The bad news is, language needs a new superlative for a health crisis developing so quickly it will almost certainly be different by the time this article publishes.

Seasoned crews have weathered airline volatility before. It’s an unfortunate characteristic of a long aviation career. Temporary as this unpredictability is implied to be, no crew member can read the news without adding, “so far” to each statistic of time, wages, and profits lost. Just two weeks ago, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicted airline losses of $29 billion. Today they are saying $113 billion. CEO Alexandre de Juniac already labels the pandemic’s effect on business a “crisis.”

British regional carrier FlyBe was the first coronavirus casualty, predicted to be the “first of many” airlines to disappear. At even the healthiest airlines, voluntary unpaid leaves are the new status quo (Lufthansa, Emirates, Air China, American Airlines, United, and British Airways, to name a few). The timelines are small (two to four weeks at a time), but the numbers are not.

“I’m self-quarantining myself away from my grandparents, honestly, from the public… I’m a little afraid to tell people what I do for a living at the moment.”

As it stands, American Airlines awarded flight attendant leaves for April to all volunteered (over 1,000). In addition, a unique schedule is being offered: flight attendants can choose to fly below the contractual minimum of 40 flight hours per month. United has even canceled a pilot training class. This is notable given years of industry-wide fretting over (then) imminent pilot shortage.

Crews will be hanging hope on the fact that neither long-term leaves nor furloughs have been reported, even at Cathay Pacific where 75% of the workforce is scheduled for leaves and 120 of their 200 planes are grounded. However, Delta became the first to put a foot over the line of permanent reductions by announcing early retirement packages on March 11 (details still emerging).

It is impossible for me to accurately speak for hundreds of thousands of crew members, across many airline situations, with their own experiences and perspectives. However, familiar messengers, such as Sara Nelson, president of the largest flight attendant union in the U.S., are broadly applauding airlines for their coronavirus response.

A well-publicized move has been to make flying cleaner than ever before. Although it varies airline to airline, towel services have been suspended, food service altered, blankets removed, recycling efforts paused, and catering supplies are being processed differently. We hope to see hand sanitizing stations in the cabin soon, but current rules prohibit this.

As passengers watch us in the airplane aisle wondering what’s behind our poker faces, know that we’re thinking we’d like to be employed this summer, and not become the local coronavirus “super-spreader” in the meantime. Oh—and we think you should probably just take off that mask (or at least put it on correctly).