Flight attendants train extensively for almost any possibility, from medical emergencies to acts of terrorism. Linda, a 65-year-old flight attendant, has seen almost everything in her 40 years of employment. But working through the coronavirus pandemic on virtually vacant planes is something no one could plan for. The veteran flight attendant opens up about what it’s like to fly the empty skies and how aircraft crews are the essential workers that often go unrecognized.
I have been flying since 1980. I love the flexibility of the job. You meet a lot of people, you go to a lot of different places that you wouldn’t probably ordinarily go — for me, it’s a good way of life. That’s why I still do it. Though it’s a little challenging right now, it will pass.
Apart from my first airline going out of business in the early ‘90s and, and then, of course, 9/11, the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on the airline business is like nothing I have ever experienced. This is really different. Airports are empty, planes are empty. And it’s affecting so many people; even flight attendants and pilots are getting the virus now.
The outbreak does make me a little uncomfortable to be on the plane right now, but not scared. We are provided with masks, gloves and items to sanitize our personal areas on the plane. No real food is being served on flights — only packaged unopened items, including closed sodas and drinks. And no ice for passengers. Even with the in-flight changes, so far passengers have been humble and cooperative.
So, despite everything going on with the world, many of us are still coming to work every day, though my company has offered the option of voluntary furlough. It is considered a leave with travel and health benefits for any flight attendant who wants to take it – and when people do take it, it also allows flight attendants who can’t afford to take time off to keep flying, giving them more opportunities to fly and make money.
LUONG THAI LINH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
I’m in my 60s and there are flight attendants much older than I am flying. I flew with a flight attendant one time who was 83. Some just still enjoy what they do; it’s not like they have to fly, but that they want to.
And like those flight attendants, I have chosen to work — in fact, I recently flew from Chicago to Denver and back. We had about 20 crew members on this aircraft that normally holds about 350 people and about five passengers onboard. Even with these near-empty flights, FAA regulation states that all doors need to be staffed when there are passengers on board.
Apart from empty flights, one of the crazier things I have experienced amid all of this was dealing with customs at the Chicago airport on March 14, when it was getting ready to shut down international flights into Europe after the travel ban announcement that week.
I was coming in from an international flight with everybody trying to get home. When we got off the plane and saw the madness, we couldn’t even believe it. Fortunately, we were able to bypass the major line, but we still had to be in the main vicinity of passengers … Everybody was literally on top of each other. It took us over an hour to get through the lines; it probably took four to six hours for regular people to get through customs that day. I can’t tell you how many people were probably either infected or passed it along because the people were just packed in. [Editors’ note: Travelers shared photos like the below of the packed conditions.]
It’s a different world right now. I think it’s just going to take a while to get back to normal. I don’t think it’s going to be this year, but I think by next year people are going to start gradually getting back on planes. As of now, I don’t think the flights are going to be that full and they can continue to space people out. But I don’t know what’s going to happen when the flights start filling up again.
I do think I speak for flight attendants all over in saying that we do feel like the forgotten group sometimes — we are essential workers and first responders too. People don’t realize that flight attendants and pilots are still getting on these airplanes. We have a choice to stay home, but if we all stay home, you really couldn’t go anywhere.
Flight attendants especially, we’re constantly coming in contact with people. The pilots at least can go in the cockpit and shut the door, but we are out and about. People don’t understand, it’s a tough call for us to do what we do in this time. But there’s a group of us who still love it and are out here doing it.
The airlines will eventually recover. We weren’t sure how they were going to recover after 9/11, but they did.
- As told to Morgan Evans
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