CORONAVIRUS

I'm A Flight Attendant. This Is What Flying During The COVID-19 Crisis Feels Like.

"All of these empty airports and empty planes breed an incredible amount of fear in everyone I’m working with. And then there is fear of the virus itself."
"We spend a lot of time sitting on airplanes that are empty of any passengers, besides fellow crew members."
"We spend a lot of time sitting on airplanes that are empty of any passengers, besides fellow crew members."

A month ago, the most annoying question you could ask your flight attendant was, “Is this flight full?” At that time, empty seats were a rarity. A healthy economy has had airplanes full for years ― especially the airline I’ve been employed with since 2006. Our loyalty program and our famous customer service make us a favorite with most Americans.

We have come to accept full flights as a way of life, and even though we found it annoying when you asked if our flights were full, we 100% understood your relief when we said they were not. Even when just one-tenth of the seats were empty, it made a difference in the collective energy of the crowd on board. A little bit of extra space for passengers to breathe meant a little less anxiety for us all.

We’ve grown to accept that passengers treat us like servers in the sky, with many wanting a beverage before the wheels are even off the ground. We’ve accepted that you don’t want to make eye contact or look up from your devices when you order your Bloody Mary. We gripe with each other about the loss of humanity that came with the increase in technology. The funny thing is, we flight attendants are also often the first to ignore each other as soon as we get in the van to the hotel ― our eyes glued to our devices, trying to connect with loved ones at home.

In the early days of March, when COVID-19 was just beginning to spread in the U.S., I watched my job transform in front of my eyes. Passengers who used to let their kids eat off a tray table without second-guessing whether it was clean or not were suddenly cleaning every touchable surface with Lysol wipes.

An empty concourse at Orlando International Airport.
An empty concourse at Orlando International Airport.

On March 9, our CEO released a statement to employees informing us that COVID-19 might be more catastrophic to our business than 9/11, which at that point was more information than we’d heard from President Donald Trump. It was a harrowing message ― one that I will always remember. My husband and I went out for dinner that night and if I would have known that it would be our last meal outside our home for who knows how long, I would have spent more time enjoying it, instead of worrying about that letter.

But how could I not worry? 

After receiving that letter, I took a week off and then came back to an entirely different industry. On March 17, we suspended on-board service outside of handing out a snack and water. On March 25, we suspended on-board service altogether.

My coworkers and I are all in agreement that our jobs have never been easier ― or harder. We spend a lot of time sitting on airplanes that are empty of any passengers, besides fellow crew members. We can’t help but wonder why we are still flying? I just keep thinking about how much money we are losing. All of these empty airports and empty planes breed an incredible amount of fear in everyone I’m working with.

And then there is fear of the virus itself. There is no such thing as social distancing when you are airline personnel. Since March 18, I have worked every day except for three. I do my best to stay distant from my crew members and other people that I come into contact with, but some do not understand what social distancing is about.

I have had ground operations personnel come into my galley and stand an inch away from me. I back away without saying anything because I do not want to be rude, but my patience is wearing thin. Our company still has not changed any policy regarding sitting next to our crew members on the jump seat.

The day after Trump in mid-March told us not to be in a crowd larger than 10 people, I was one of 175 passengers on a 737. The day before that, I was in a taxi sedan traveling on Long Island with five other people as we shuttled to the airport. I’m watching my friends get pulled from work for two weeks because they’ve flown with someone who has tested positive. I am working a lot. I am waiting for that same call.

I’m watching my friends get pulled from work for two weeks because they’ve flown with someone who has tested positive. I am working a lot. I am waiting for that same call.

Flight attendants are creatures of habit. In the days prior to this pandemic, we were usually divided into two groups. Some retreat to their rooms on their layovers to enjoy Netflix, room service and uninterrupted rest. We call these flight attendants “slam-clickers.” Others do a quick change and head straight to the bar for camaraderie and debriefing with their crews. Many hotels have drink and meal specials for crew members, so depending on the city, any given hotel bar around the world might be filled with airline crew members filling the void of a lonely job with cheap drinks and chicken wings.

I am neither of these kinds of flight attendants. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve turned on my TV in my hotel rooms. But I’m not a person who hangs out at the hotel bar or restaurant either. Before March 9, I usually preplanned my layovers and most of the time I’d use them to see a friend who didn’t work in the industry. If not seeing a friend, I’d plan to hit a local gym or coffee shop. It hit me around 10 days ago that I might not see my friends who are not in the industry for a long time.

I do not know when I will sit in a coffee shop in a random city again. I do not know when I’ll ever get to use another gym. These days, hotels are quiet. I used to curse at hearing doors slam in the hallway and now I miss the sound of others near me. It is now a quiet, quiet world.

Last week, I walked several miles around downtown Nashville, Tennessee. It was a ghost town ― free of most people besides the occasional street musician trying to make a dollar to get a bite to eat. Most hotels have very limited staff and the majority are no longer serving food. If you want to get something to eat, it’s limited to takeout only. Room service and crowded hotel bars are a thing of the not-so-distant past. When I do order anything, I find myself tipping almost 50%. I fear for my job, but I am even more fearful for the jobs of these other people who I now realize have made my life easier for years ― something I had taken for granted.

An empty concourse at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.
An empty concourse at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.

When my trip ends, I drive home on empty highways. I try not to listen to the news. I come home from work and immediately wash my uniform, which I doubt will survive the hours I am working this month. I take a shower immediately and worry that everything I touch is going to be infected with this virus that loves to live on surfaces. Some of my coworkers were germaphobes long before this pandemic. I fear most of us may now be for the rest of our lives.

Perhaps the hardest thing that I have had to deal with throughout the rise of this crisis has been the outward denial of some of my co-workers and passengers and how many people have made the pandemic into a political issue.

Two weeks ago, a pilot thought it was hilarious when I asked him to step back a few feet from me. He laughed at my concern and explained to me that the entire thing was just hyped up by the media and that “I would see” in the coming weeks. I’d love to run into him today and ask him what exactly it was that I was supposed to see. We can blame the president or blame social media or the media or whomever we want, but the longer we continue to deny science and point fingers, the more lives are in danger.

I am not a politician. I am not a scientist. I am not a doctor. I am a flight attendant. I am someone who loves people and this virus is making me very afraid of other people. Whether you are my crew member, my passenger or my friend, I am scared that I am asymptomatic and in danger of making you and everyone you love ill. I’m also scared of contracting the disease from others.

I am anxious about this virus, yes, but more than anything else, I am anxious about the economy, the future of the airline industry ― the future in general ― and the lives of every single person that I encounter in my days at work.

I don’t know if continuing to work is the best choice, but I love my employer, so I show up for work to be part of this fight. I do not know whether I am better off or worse off than my friends who are sheltered in place. I am an extrovert, so getting to talk to new people every day does occasionally fill my cup. It does not change how anxious I feel every time I step into a barren airport. I am anxious about this virus, yes, but more than anything else, I am anxious about the economy, the future of the airline industry ― the future in general ― and the lives of every single person that I encounter in my days at work.

What will the world look like when this is all over? How many of us ― my fellow flight attendants and others who work in the airline industry, but everyone else, too ― will have to lose their jobs? How many of us will lose people we are close to, and maybe even our own lives?

It was less than 31 days ago that I was complaining to my crew about someone asking me for two drinks on a short flight. Those days of complaints and annoyances seem like a lifetime ago. It makes me wonder about my passengers who complained about TSA, lack of WiFi, full flights and every other blessing that felt like a nuisance then. Where are they now? Are they wishing they had been a little nicer, a little softer, a little more grateful for what they had? I know that I certainly am.

Lori Light is a writer, student, and flight attendant. She is passionate about recovery, music, exercise, traveling, cooking and spirituality. She lives in Chicago with her husband, with whom she loves to ride bicycles when the weather permits. You can follow her on Instagram at @Loriinthesky.

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