Plane travel and coronavirus: What it's like to be a flight attendant during the pandemic

Flight attendants have always had unique occupational hazards, from managing bad behaviour onboard to balancing perpetual jet lag. But the pandemic has brought even more (and tougher) challenges for the essential workers.

They've faced backlash as the enforcers of airlines' tightening mask policies. They've worried for the health and safety of their family members, colleagues and themselves. And like many during this global health and economic crisis, their jobs are more at risk than ever.

We spoke with four flight attendants about their experiences working during the pandemic.

Customer service has changed drastically

Eliminating standard food and drink services stripped flight attendants of most in-flight social interactions, which was a source of joy for many airline employees.

Paul Bowles, a Delta flight attendant who lives in Salt Lake City, says that before the pandemic, his favorite part of a shift was "being on the cart" talking to passengers. Now, a human connection at a masked distance is difficult.

"With the mask on, you have to smile with your eyes which I think can be a lot harder especially because I wear glasses," says Bowles. "I find myself almost squinting a little bit harder than I normally do so people can feel those good vibes coming from me."

Jamie Gibson, an Annapolis, Md.-based flight attendant for private jet companies, has felt the same strain.

"So much of hospitality and service is body language," she said. "It's been interesting to try to navigate half of your face not showing while still trying to show a sense of warmth."

Some of the biggest health concerns aren't onboard

Raven Johnson, who has been a flight attendant for four years, has gone from flying about 100 hours with regional carrier Mesa Airlines to about 30 to minimize her risk of getting covid-19. But she still worries about her choice to continue working during the pandemic.

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"Am I getting this virus? Am I going to bring this home to my family?" the Houston-based flight attendant says.

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Johnson says she wasn't allowed to wear a mask or gloves in-flight. She said the flight attendants were told covid-19 wasn't a big deal, that it was like the flu. That's since changed.

"People at my job were getting the virus because they weren't wearing a mask at first because no one knew what this was," Johnson says.

Gibson, who's been a flight attendant for seven years, has been more concerned about her health at hotels than on flights.

"We are bringing packs of Lysol wipes to our hotel room, wiping off light switches, doorknobs," she says. "It's just a whole new semblance of vigilance when it comes to the hidden surfaces that we touch."

Some flight attendants have felt comforted by airline sanitation efforts. Angel Figueroa, a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines who lives in Ontario, Calif., hasn't been concerned about catching the coronavirus at work.

"Between every flight, they're coming on and wiping everything down," says Figueroa, who's flown with Southwest for 15 years. "Everyone from a flight attendant standpoint is really good about washing your hands, using hand sanitizer, wearing gloves, wearing a mask."

Many of the perks of the job are gone

Johnson loved spending time with new colleagues exploring new places until the next flight. Now she says crews don't hang out anymore, both for social distancing reasons and because there isn't anywhere to go.

"I'm on an overnight now and I haven't done anything all day but stay in bed and watch TV. I brought my own food, so I haven't even needed to leave the room at all. It's nerve-racking."

Johnson's free time once spent seeing cities across the United States, Mexico and Canada is now passed sitting in a hotel room.

"I just go to work, stay home, and I'm just hoping that this all blows over because I mainly got this job to travel," Johnson says. "I miss how things were before."

Only a few passengers are causing mask confrontations

While clashes over mask policies do occur, flight attendants say most passengers comply.

"I've only run into to a few people that were kind of headstrong about it, but everyone complies," says Bowles.

If a passenger fails to comply with Delta's mask policy after verbal warnings, they can be given a "notice of violation" card banning them from flying Delta until the mask policy is lifted.

"At the end of the day, they're going to [wear a mask] because they want to get from Point A to Point B."

Delta says they've banned about 130 people from flying on the airline as a result of refusing to wear masks onboard, including a customer who'd flown 2 million miles with the airline.

Southwest Airlines has made headlines for implementing the strictest mask policy of domestic airlines. Still, Figueroa has only had a few people express their disapproval.

"At the end of the day, they're going to [wear a mask] because they want to get from Point A to Point B," says Figueroa.

The future of the job is uncertain

With the end of the Cares Act approaching, which required airlines to keep front line employees working through Sept. 30, carriers like American Airlines and United say they may furlough tens of thousands of employees.

"From a job security standpoint, I need people to be flying in order to have a job," Figueroa says.

Bowles became a flight attendant because it promised flexible hours, fulfilling work and travel. Two years into the job, he's at risk of losing it.

"I know Delta hasn't announced if they're going to furlough or not, but they've announced that they are overstaffed," he says. "If something doesn't change by October, I'll lose my job."

Gibson thinks this crisis will leave a lasting change in public opinion of flight attendants.

"It's actually been very eye-opening, I think, for a lot of people that we're not just flight attendants, we are a necessary member of the flight operations," Gibson says. "It's just made me that much more proud to be a flight attendant helping people, especially at a time of need."

The Washington Post

See also: Has the world gone mad? 10 bizarre COVID-19 rules

See also: The 10 terms travellers need to know in the COVID-19 era

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