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6 Flight Attendants On How Their Jobs Have Changed Since Coronavirus

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 3 days ago Mark Ellwood
a group of people standing in a room © Getty

United has reduced its flights in April and May by 90 percent. Delta has cut 80 percent of international flights, and 70 percent of its network overall. As for the third of the Big Three, American—which was already on wobblier financial ground than its rivals—has removed 75 percent of international flights from its network though early May. And on Sunday JetBlue joined them in drastically slashing services, telling employees that it will only operate essential flights, which includes less than half its usual network this week.

Of course, the employees providing service to fliers on those essential flights are the flight attendants. “It’s been tough, on a personal [and] psychological level,” says Mathew, 40, a New York-based flight attendant who’s been with one of the major airlines for 12 years. “Folks keep asking ‘How are you doing? How are you feeling?’ They mean well, but it’s traumatizing.” It’s a reminder, he says, of the challenges he currently faces simply by turning up for work.

Paul Bowles, 24, has been flying for just two years, and is based out of Minneapolis. “It’s depressing. I worked a trip last weekend, and my friend was trying to fight back tears as we did the beverage service on an almost empty flight,” he says. “I am keeping my bags in the garage when I get home, and washing my uniform after the trip.”

Another New York-based flight attendant, who is in her late 30s and asked to be referred to as LJ, also works for a major carrier continuing to fly; under current guidelines, if she does not work as rostered, her income will be impacted. “I feel like a walking Petri dish. We are exposed to so much and we live all over the country, so we are carting back whatever we have been exposed to back to our homes,” she says. “I would rather be home and self-quarantined for everyone’s safety.” Onboard, she’s resorted to ad hoc remedies which she hopes will ward off sickness: lining her nose with Vick’s vaporub and taking Airborne regularly. “Hand sanitizer is the daily norm for me, all day every day, so my hands look like the crypt keeper.”

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While the largest union representing flight attendants, AFA-CWA, issued a press release earlier this month outlining its demands to protect cabin crew in flight, it did not call for mandatory self-isolation. For Dana, a three-decade veteran of the skies based out of LAX, the issue is broader than perceived cleanliness of aircraft right now. “Many flight attendants don’t understand how they can be allowed to work on planes with more than 50 people when cities, states, and nations are calling for ‘social distancing’ and to avoid large groups,” she says, noting that on international routes, many countries now require self-quarantine for travelers on arrival. Flight crews, however, are usually exempt.

Airlines official policies on how to implement social distancing at 30,000 feet differ. According to a United spokesperson, the airline now follows the directives of CDC when seating fliers. “We would like to give customers the opportunity to do so when flight loads permit. Therefore when possible, United is trying to seat customers in such a way that there is an acceptable distance between them, in accordance with CDC recommendations, unless they are traveling together. We believe this will help to lessen traveler anxiety.” A Delta spokesperson says that the airline has updated its operational weight and balance policy so that customers can distance themselves on board, and gate agents will also be primed to help with seat reallocation.

There have been other changes made, too. Onboard service standards have adjusted to address the health of both staff and travelers: no more glassware or hot towel service in many premium cabins, and no self-serve snack stations. The rules against wearing plastic gloves while conducting food service have been relaxed, and cleaning of the aircraft intensified: Delta, for example, published details on its various social channels showing how it is fogging interiors. (The process essentially coats every surface with an EPA-approved disinfectant, which can be then cleaned before customers board.) The airline has also co-opted its own museum into a reservation center so that reps can continue handling the enormous volumes of calls from passengers while maintaining social distance for their safety.

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And as airlines—and the airports that service them—are looking for major bailouts from the government, flight attendants are as concerned for their financial wellbeing as their health. There are persistent rumors that restrictions on flying might extend to an outright ban on domestic service, and much like after 9/11 or during the 2008 recession, many expect furloughs—effectively unpaid, extended leave until economic conditions improve. According to Bowles, his colleagues are already prepping for such a scenario. “I’ve seen threads on Facebook where we’re sharing our side hustles so we can support one another, as some take a personal leave of absence,” he says. “I’m offering to review and revamp resumes for those who take that leave and are looking for work.” Bowles is concerned for his own future as well. He and his husband, also a flight attendant, have a rental property they use to generate extra income—unfortunately, the tenants are cabin crew, too.

“It’s extremely tense, as people are worried about their jobs. Think of it like a reality television show where you are waiting to be eliminated,” says Joe Thomas, 47, who has been cabin crew for 12 years and runs the blog Flight Attendant Joe. “It’s not only tough for airline employees, but for the families they have to leave behind. I have a hard time explaining to my husband that I have to go to work, because he wants me to be home and safe.” Thomas says that many crews are posting more goofy videos than ever about life working on a plane. “Humor in a time like this is helpful.”

There is, however, hope in a return to normalcy. “Our customers have been so very supportive, and they’re grateful to get where they’re going because now they have to, not just want to,” Mathew says. “We’ll be on this carousel for a few months and come July or so, we’ll be back to talking about how expensive tickets are and calming down someone who was forced to check their bag.”

In the interim, however long that may turn out to be, most attendants are taking it day by day. “There is a certain level of grief that comes with this virus. I actually miss people and the beauty behind traveling,” says Jennifer Jaki Johnson, 36, who has been working for a major carrier for six years, while running the travel and style site Jetsetter Chic. But she also notes that many of the flights still operating serve vital purposes: transporting soldiers home to loved ones, rescue animals to new homes, and even donated organs in cargo to key hospitals. “The flights may not be filled—there might only be 10 people—but we’re saving lives. On the bright side, that’s a beautiful thing.”

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