As guidelines continue to change and the public faces big questions about the safety of air travel during the coronavirus crisis, flight attendants are on the front lines. And they’re taking a double hit, working directly with passengers who may or may not be infected and worrying about job security.
Jay Robert is a flight attendant for “one of the world’s largest international airlines overseas” and the creator of A Fly Guy’s Cabin Crew Lounge, a social networking group for airline staff around the world. His job has changed drastically over the past month.
“My flying schedule has been cleared for the next month because all the destinations I was rostered flights to have closed their borders,” he told HuffPost by email. “So the most uncertainty I’m facing is if and when I will work next.”
Airlines have taken drastic measures in response to their staggering losses. On Thursday, American Airlines announced it would ground half of its fleet in April and offer voluntary leave programs to alleviate costs, but did not make any comment about layoffs.
HuffPost also spoke to a flight attendant with a regional carrier of American Airlines Group who requested anonymity to avoid repercussions from their employer. He said that as a newer staff member, he is worried about the status of his job. As it is, he told HuffPost he “doesn’t get paid very much at all.”
The AA flight attendant said his airline is offering 14 days paid sick leave for those who contract the virus, but that right now one of his biggest concerns is getting stuck somewhere and not being able to get home.
“If they shut the airport when we’re out on the road, we’re stuck,” he said. “A lot of us commute because unfortunately, with what airlines pay us, we can’t afford to live in these hubs.”
The Association of Flight Attendants, the main union for the profession in the U.S., has issued actions for the safety of flight crew, and its leader, Sara Nelson, has criticized the government’s response to the pandemic. As of this story’s publishing, one flight attendant has been reported to have contracted the virus.
Here are more things those most familiar with the friendly skies want you to know about being in the air right now.
Airlines are taking even further precautions than their already stringent sanitizing practices
Robert told HuffPost that for his airline, at least to destinations where people are still able to fly, the flights have been full.
“It seems the flights have switched from holiday to rescue flights,” he said. “People seem to be very thankful they have a way home before their border closes. A lot of European passengers are cutting their trips short to try to beat deadlines for getting back.”
What has changed for him and his colleagues, though, are the guidelines and precautions taken by staff, which includes regular testing of the crew and passengers. He has noticed an uptick in protective gear and a decline in physical interaction.
“The guidelines are changing daily,” Robert said. One day this month, he noted, crews were only allowed to wear masks on flights headed to at-risk destinations, but the next they were supplied with gloves and masks for all flights.
“We are also being told to avoid leaving our hotels when on a layover in another country and we have to self-quarantine upon arrival into our base country for two weeks,” Robert said. “A lot of alone time these days. So looking after mental health is also important and checking on colleagues who suffer from anxiety.”
The airlines are also sharing clear, helpful information about the steps they are taking to keep planes clean and safe. Delta, for example, has created a resource site specifically about dealing with the virus. There, it lays out its sanitizing practices, which have been updated to include a disinfecting fogging procedure, following “a rigorous 19-point checklist for cabin cleanliness, including disinfecting cabin surfaces and customer contact areas such as seats, seat back pockets, tray tables and floors.” It also details how its industrial-grade air filters work to prevent illness.
Coronavirus has led to a lot of disruptions in flight attendants’ and travel agents’ schedules ― and paychecks
As mentioned above, the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has deeply affected those who work in the airline industry.
“Compared to a growing majority of airline staff, I consider myself fortunate in the fact that I haven’t been forced into a temporary layoff,” Robert said. “But in this current uncertain climate, this could change tomorrow. So the stress level is very high.”
The newer fight attendant HuffPost spoke to has similar concerns. “I only have seven hours of accrued sick time,” he said. “I work for a pretty solid airline but since I’m fairly new there are a lot of questions, if I’ll be furloughed. We just don’t know how it’s going to affect us.”
Flight attendants are doing everything to stay healthy so you stay healthy, too
Robert says he practices healthy habits in order to lower his risk of getting sick.
“I personally have been trying to maintain a regular sleep pattern and supplement routine to keep my immune defense healthy,” he said.
The other flight attendant we spoke to has largely relied on antibacterial wipes to get him through a flight.
“Catering gives us [sanitizer] wipes, but we just got an email that they might be running out,” he said. “I carry them on me and am using them on my hand every 10 minutes. Because I’m dealing with customers, I have to make sure if I get something from someone I’m not passing it to the next person.”
In line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert has also increased hand-washing.
“At the end of the flights, my hands are so dry because of the amount of hand sanitizer and washes I’m doing,” he said, so he uses hand lotion regularly. Having moisturized hands is a crucial step in the hand-washing process to keep germs at bay and stop their spread. Cracked, dry hands are a break in the safety barrier, making soap and hand sanitizer less effective.
Flight crews are keeping an eye out for sick passengers
Robert mostly stressed the importance of being an informed traveler.
“If you show signs [of illness], don’t travel,” he said. “The crew are hypersensitive right now and are reporting any signs of communicable disease to health authorities to be extra careful and avoid having our aircraft be quarantined.”
He added that their jobs ― and your travels ― can be impacted if you fly sick. “Our duties are extended for many hours if we’re waiting for everyone to be screened.”
This is hardly the first time flight attendants and flight crews have faced something like this ― in fact, they are trained for this from the get-go.
“Flight attendants are trained in how to mitigate the spread of a communicable disease,” Nelson, the union leader, told HuffPost over the phone last week. “It’s part of our initial training and annual training. We have access to that information, we have updates, we have reminders on our website. We are already more aware than the general public and more attuned because we have a baseline of training around it.”
Remember, flight attendants are people ― worried people ― just like you
“Like most people who are required to work with the public during this time, we are stressed and worried about many factors that expand beyond our work responsibilities,” Robert said.
“We want to be at home with our family, following the safety guidelines and help stop the spread, but it’s impossible to practice social distancing in an aluminum tube confined with 500 people,” he continued. “So the best way people can help us is not fly if they are unwell and protect themselves by following strict hygiene standards if they are required to take necessary travel.”
Both flight attendants agreed that it also helps to travel with kindness.
“Walking onto the plane and treating the flight attendant and pilot with the same decency and respect that we would give them would be major,” our anonymous flight attendant said. “My last flight I had passengers who were rude on the verge of being mean ― snapping at us, very tense. The difference is they’re tense and get to go home, we’re tense and we have to go sit in a hotel away from family and loved ones and not being able to prepare. I had concerns of coming home and not being able to get groceries, and there are people on planes stealing toilet paper.”
Ultimately, though, there is a sense that we’re all in this ― and will get through this together.
“A lot of people are asking us what’s going on, and we have the same questions, honestly,” he said. “But it is the job of a flight attendant to calm nerves, and we do our best.”
Keep up with the latest updates on the coronavirus at our live blog.