A flight attendant tells us why they’ve been begging the airlines, the politicians, and the public for weeks to shut air travel down.
Four weeks ago, the feeling among flight attendants regarding coronavirus was one of “common-sense precautions, but not panic.” Today it’s very different. Flight attendants have carried on their work while cases of the disease mount, travel quarantines commenced (excluding flight crews), and their colleagues became sick and even died. Passenger demand continued to plunge, flight schedules were slashed–up to as much as 80%–and work rosters dissolved into chaos. Their calm became distress, now resignation–that the airlines, and thus flight attendants, are destined for a historic role in exacerbating the pandemic. There is collective disquiet that the time to act has passed in both effectiveness and will.
“Shut it down!” has been a popular refrain in flight attendant social media groups for several weeks.
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“There’s no doubt airline travel is how this was spread so rapidly,” says one flight attendant for a major U.S. carrier, who, like all the airline crew interviewed for this story, wished to remain anonymous due to airline media policies and particular sensitivity around this topic.
“Nobody cares about our wellbeing and nobody is powerful enough to stop the madness.”
Unions estimate there are hundreds of crew members infected. Even with the scarce access to testing, Delta has 51 confirmed-positive pilots, and the union representing American Airlines flight attendants (APFA) says over 100 of its members have tested positive. Over 1,000 flight attendants are in self-quarantine according to the head of a separate flight attendant union, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. These numbers are one reason why crew social media groups feature letters sent to airline executives, as well as several petitions, pleading for a shutdown. For many, it feels like the only way to remove the airlines as fuel to the COVID-19 fire.
That said, the flight attendants interviewed unanimously noted the importance of cargo transport and some essential travel (i.e. the positioning of medical staff). Everyone described the shutdown they would like to see as “partial” or “targeted,” with restrictions on non-essential travel. Requiring documentation to prove a need for travel is a popular idea, “like we do for service animals.” They also stressed such stringent measures should be short-term, anywhere from two to four weeks.
With as much as airlines have done their best to make flying pandemic-friendly, ”the claims [of better sanitation] are impossible,” says one flight attendant, who also described her recent days at work as: “A disaster. [Was there] extra cleaning? No. We had short sit times and few supplies.” Was there social distancing, at least? “Nope.”
Another flight attendant questioned, “Why aren’t pax [passengers] every other row, every other seat?” Even on near-empty planes, policies for social distancing that have seemed obvious to flight attendants for weeks have been slow to develop (even as recently as April 8 ), and where they existed, are still inconsistently implemented.
These observations come on top of more publicized concerns that airlines are falling short when it comes to pandemic safety. Complaints about lack of PPE, or even permission to wear it, are well documented in the media. When video leaked last week suggesting Delta instructed pilots not to inform others if they test positive, or have flown with anyone else who has, crews were horrified but unsurprised.
The public is seen as part of the problem, too. Health officials have already advised against all-but-essential travel, but flight attendants say nothing will change without official action.
“If a person is able to book a flight, they will assume it is OK for them to fly. That is how our society works,” remarked a flight attendant based at LaGuardia.
Although American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said last week that, “those flying today are doing so for important reasons,” flight attendants see differently.
“Today we had a couple […] just taking vacation because they got cheap tickets,” shared one. “I really wanted to ask them what they intend to do in a city that was shut down but didn’t waste my breath.” Another added, “We still have passengers flying across the country and doubling back on mileage runs.”
“Today we had a couple […] just taking vacation because they got cheap tickets,” shared one. “I really wanted to ask them what they intend to do in a city that was shut down but didn’t waste my breath.”
Support for a shutdown may be common among flight attendants, but comes with resignation. “Unfortunately, we are too far in now. Would I like it to shut down? Yes. Will it happen? No,” says one, who has been flying for five years. This was a sentiment shared across interviews: it’s too late to be effective. With the U.S. reporting 2,000 deaths per day, “It feels like a moot point now. Nobody cares about our wellbeing and nobody is powerful enough to stop the madness.”
Shutdown talk was strongest before the government bailout was approved. At that time analysts predicted airlines were waiting for the federal government to make a decision. Voluntarily shutting down was not seen as a good way for airlines to demonstrate their essentialness. The bailout came through, but the terms effectively prohibited a shutdown. The federal government could provide a workaround, but that isn’t seen as likely to happen.
“Even though people wanted everything shut down months ago, I knew it wouldn’t happen. There’s too much politics at play,” says a three-year flight attendant. For crews supporting shutdown, the interplay of industry and politics plays a major role in the cynicism. One flight attendant summed up the general sentiment: “At this point, does it really matter? Until all the states enforce stay at home [mandates], this is going to keep going. If this had been done a few weeks or even days ago, there may have been different outcomes.“
Not everyone has given up on a shutdown, but many have moved on to hope for consistent passenger screening instead. This was already the preference of some crews, whose reasons against a shutdown included worries about the costs of maintaining grounded aircraft and of resuming operations post-pandemic. Some also posit that, with flight schedules down 80% or more and bookings even lower than that, a partial shutdown has occurred in all but name anyway.
The question remains, however: how likely are the airlines or the government to take more decisive action on screenings than they did on a shutdown? Not very, considering that the president seems to think such a system is already in place. In both interviews and on social media, only one crew member said they had seen screening, on one single flight. Not surprisingly, flight attendants are already bracing for another disappointment.