- Airlines in the US and around the world are cancelling flights, reducing service, and cutting costs, as coronavirus fears lead to plummeting travel demand.
- Although many have chosen to cancel or postpone their travel plans, fearing that they will catch the virus on an aeroplane or in a hotel, flight attendants don’t have that option.
- Business Insider spoke with flight attendants who said that while they weren’t too concerned about the virus, they have become increasingly worried about being able to make ends meet if the public continues to avoid flying.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The ongoing spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has led to turmoil for the airline industry.
Over the past two months, airlines have seen their stock hit new multiyear lows as plummeting travel demand has forced them to suspend routes, reduce flights, waive ticket policies, and find other ways to cut costs.
Although the drop in demand initially seemed limited to flights going to one of the destinations with major outbreaks: China, Japan, South Korea, and Italy – public anxiety over the virus has led travellers to postpone vacations, and corporations to suspend business travel and cancel major conferences and expos, regardless of location or destination.
While some are nervous about being in close proximity to other people on aeroplanes or in airports, and others – thanks to nightmare stories about quarantines – are worried about travelling anywhere away from home, there’s one group of people that can’t avoid flying: Flight attendants.
Business Insider spoke with flight attendants from several different airlines to see how they feel about being on aeroplanes during the outbreak, now that it’s more widespread, and the impact has been more costly to airlines, than it was just one month ago. After all, according to Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants, they’re literally “on the front line of any communicable disease.”
Most of the workers said they weren’t terribly concerned about the virus, even if they were being careful and hoped to avoid contracting it.
However, through multiple discussions with flight attendants on background, one underlying concern was evident: That as airlines’ pockets continue to lighten as passengers put off travel, hoping to avoid the virus, the flight attendants’ job security could erode.
As they continue to take to the skies, here’s how America’s flight attendants are dealing with the threat of the coronavirus.
Are you an airline employee with thoughts on the current situation? Contact this reporter at [email protected]
“I wouldn’t describe myself as ‘anxious’ so much as ‘aware,'” one flight attendant for American Airlines said.
Flight attendant schedules work differently than most workers’ in other industries, but they will typically spend 75-100 hours a month in the air, plus more on the ground.
With all that time spent on aeroplanes, with people from all places and all walks of life, flight attendants are frequently in close proximity to people with colds, the flu, or other illnesses and viruses – known or unknown.
“As a flight attendant I’m exposed daily to so many germs,” said a United Airlines flight attendant – who, like everyone who spoke with Business Insider for this article asked not to be named because of their airlines’ media policies. “I feel like we realise that we could potentially be exposed to anything and just take general universal precautions (which is something I always do regardless).
“I wouldn’t describe myself as ‘anxious’ so much as ‘aware,'” one flight attendant for American Airlines said. “In my line of work, you always have to be conscientious about your health, so washing my hands frequently, eating healthy, and trying to get enough sleep is always a priority, and in light of the COVID-19 situation, I am trying to be even more dedicated to these precautions.”
“As a young, reasonably healthy person, with a non-compromised immune system, I am not overly concerned that I would catch anything more than a mild case,” she said, adding that she nevertheless considers it “a civic responsibility to try to avoid spreading the illness if I can.”
Other flight attendants suggested that while they could have been more concerned, personal experience, conversations with medical professionals, and research had them feeling more confident.
“I did a lot of research on it myself,” a New York-based American Airlines flight attendant, who has a background in healthcare, said. “And my sister-in-law is actually a physician, so I chatted with her.”
“I’m not worried at all,” a Chicago-based flight attendant for the airline said. “I’m a data person, and more people die from the flu.”
“From what I can tell, I’m not at much of a high risk for death as I’m not elderly or have any immune issues,” he added. “Which I think you could say is most of our workforce.”
Still, while many expressed confidence, others said they were taking extra precautions.
“I have grown a little more anxious as the virus has spread more throughout the US,” a flight attendant for Spirit Airlines said. “Since I’m married to another flight attendant, we are taking some extra precautions to try to avoid the spread. We are Lysol’ing our hotel rooms, jump seats, and work supplies more than ever.”
“I’ve never experienced the airline industry being as engaged and proactive as they have been with this.”
Since the early days of the coronavirus’ spread, in mid-January, airlines have taken extra precautions to protect employees and passengers.
“I’ve never experienced the airline industry being as engaged and proactive as they have been with this,” Nelson, the flight attendant union leader, told Business Insider. “So I want to really applaud the airlines.”
“We’re constantly getting email updates,” the United flight attendant said. “I feel like the airline is taking appropriate precautions and keeping us in the loop as to what is going on.”
“They have put more supplies on certain routes such as masks which can be used on the layover as well,” she added.
“I have received weekly to daily emails from the company with general information updates and reminders about the general precautions to take,” an American Airlines employee said. “Soap, sanitary wipes, and gloves are all regularly stocked on the planes just like always, and, of course, our first-aid supplies include protective gear like face masks in the event they’re needed.”
Another American flight attendant agreed.
“Our union and American have given us fairly regular updates as the situation evolves,” he said.
“They have added extra cleaning procedures for international routes and hand sanitizer has been provided for us as well,” another employee for the airline added.
The Spirit Airlines flight attendant, however, said that while the airline had distributed supplies, communication has been poor.
“The airline still does not want employees wearing face masks but they have provided us with extra alcohol wipes and gloves to try and keep hands clean at work in addition to our normal hand washing,” he said. “Besides that the communication about the virus is little from management.”
Spirit did not return Business Insider’s request for comment.
Although the flight attendants said they hadn’t experienced reduced hours, and didn’t expect such a thing thanks to airlines’ cost-cutting measures, being able to work enough flight hours if demand continues to drop is a definite concern.
Being a flight attendant can be a “comfortable” job for the most senior employees at an airline. Senior flight attendants get preference when choosing the flights they will work for a month – bidding, as it’s called in the industry – and make top pay for the hours they’re in the air.
“A flight to Asia is like a 30-hour, three-day trip,” a Chicago-based flight attendant for American Airlines, who, like everyone who spoke with Business Insider for this article asked not to be named, explained. “Those go very senior because you’d only need to work three trips a month to make a living. A comfortable living at that, when you’re at top pay.”
Despite many routes to Asia being suspended, and service on other routes being reduced, most flight attendants said they had not had any trouble getting their normal number of work hours, and didn’t expect to – at least, not at first.
That’s because some flight attendants choose to work fewer hours per month, either because they’re earning top pay and can afford fewer hours, they have side gigs to supplement their income, or even just because they want or need some time off.
“I’ve actually been working more it seems, which is really surprising due to the circumstances,” the United flight attendant said. “But that’s usually totally normal around this time of year, so that’s positive. I know March is a time when many senior flight attendants take their vacation as well, which leaves some open trips.”
“I’m worried though as the virus spreads that hours and flights will be cut,” the Spirit employee said. “Especially to international destinations that we serve. It’s scary that we may lose a lot of flying.”
“They are working on pay protections for the crews who suddenly lost hours,” the Chicago-based American Airlines worker said. “They are also allowing people to start the month with no hours, typically you would be forced no less than 40 but on average about 70-75 hours scheduled.”
“That helps a lot when you have people who would rather not work, allow those who do, work the trips,” he added.
However, as flight schedules continue to be reduced with dropping travel demand, some of the flight attendants said they were beginning to feel more anxious about their work situations.
Flight attendants at airlines with a labour contract, including American and United, said that they expected the airline to offer voluntary unpaid leaves if they end up needing fewer workers until demand picks back up. Flight attendants taking those leaves would not be paid, but would continue accruing seniority, would retain benefits including healthcare, and could continue using their employee travel benefits.
For someone wanting time off, or with a side job, the leave can be appealing, and would mean that the flight attendants who want to continue working will still have enough hours available.
On Wednesday, United announced it would reduce its domestic schedule by 10% and its international network by 20% for April and May, and said it would offer the leaves.
Before the announcement the United flight attendant said that she had heard it was a possibility. After an email from the airline’s CEO and president, she said that while she was still hopeful and positive, she was beginning to feel slightly anxious.
“I just really hope enough people take those offers,” she said. “Everything is so uncertain right now.”
“This sort of thing is definitely unnerving,” an American flight attendant said. “Rumours of furloughs have been flying around unchecked lately, and true new hires, the ones with barely a year or two – or in some cases only a few months – under their belts are clearly distressed.”
“There are flight attendants in my base with upwards of 40 years seniority, so getting my hours in, holding decent trips – that’s always something of a concern,” she added, noting that she was short of 10 years of seniority. “Whether or not a pandemic will make that even more difficult going forward – I suppose it just doesn’t pay to borrow trouble.”
One thing that had her especially anxious was the airline’s sick-leave policy, which she described as “notoriously punitive” industry-wide.
“If, like me, you have an interest in internal advancement, calling in sick can come back to haunt you,” she said. “How am I supposed to care for myself, my coworkers, and the public without sabotaging my career?”
Despite her anxieties, she said she was also going to try and stay positive.
“There’s very little I can do to prepare for that except try not to be frivolous in my spending, so I’m trying to just go about my life and not assume the worst.”
While most passengers seem to be going about their business as usual, flight attendants say that some seem genuinely concerned — though possibly misguided.
Even though demand continues to drop, leading airlines to cancel flights and suspend routes, most of the flight attendants said that so far, load factors have seemed more-or-less normal.
“I have noticed that our flights are still full and the demand at least at our airline is still high,” the Spirit flight attendant said, including on international flights.
“Domestic flights are still completely full,” the United employee said. “However I did notice that Europe flight loads are definitely down. “Business class was still full, but economy wasn’t even halfway full. I’m not sure if that’s normal for this time of year.”
Flight attendants for American had similar observations.
“Passenger loads appear mostly the same to me, at least domestically and in the Caribbean,” one worker said, noting that she did not typically work on flights to Europe due to seniority.
“Internationally, the flights are wide open,” the Chicago-based flight attendant said. He added that he was planning to use his travel benefits more, to take advantage of seat availability.
Among the passengers who choose to fly, the flight attendants said that they had noticed some who weren’t behaving any differently, some who seemed to be taking prudent steps – like washing hands – and others who were behaving more irrationally.
“Unfortunately, it always seems to be one extreme or the other, even before worrying about the coronavirus was common,” an American Airlines crewmember said, noting that people still “walk around barefoot, don’t wash their hands,” alongside those “from the other camp, who won’t touch anything on the aircraft and who would probably spray me with Lysol given the opportunity.”
“Masks are becoming something of a fashion trend,” she added. I see more and more of them, even on domestic flights, which definitely speaks to the shortage of medical masks I’ve heard about. Amusingly, masks are definitely being worn by both the mysophobes clinging to their sanitary wipes and the careless bare-footers.”
The Chicago-based employee noticed the same thing.
“I’ve seen someone with a face mask walk barefoot into the lavatory,” he said. “You would be really surprised as to how gross people can get.”
Another American Airlines flight attendant said she had seen the same thing.
“Medical professionals who need the masks daily aren’t able to find them because of this trend,” she said.
“Whether it’s the coronavirus or the flu, wash your hands,” the New York-based flight attendant with the healthcare background said. “Don’t touch your face, don’t put your fingers in your mouth. Wearing a stupid mask that healthcare providers need more than you isn’t going to help – do you even know how to use it properly?”
She said she had seen some passengers wearing masks and gloves to wipe their seats down before placing a plastic tarp over it, and added that a coworker had joked that in a few weeks, the workers who normally clean the aeroplanes could leave it to the passengers, who were doing their jobs for them.
“So many more people wearing masks, wiping everything down frantically when they get on the plane,” the United flight attendant said. “People are definitely freaked out and some going to extremes. But then I look around at the families walking around the airport who don’t seem concerned at all, still going about their lives and going on their vacations!”
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