Self, Health And Wellness

How It Feels To Be A Flight Attendant During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Photo: unsplash / Arthur Edelman
How It Feels To Be A Flight Attendant During The Coronavirus Pandemic

There’s a coronavirus meme floating around that reads something like:

"You want to know how it feels to be a [insert profession here] during this coronavirus pandemic? Remember when the Titanic was sinking and the band continued to play? Well, that’s us."

While the quote can be applied to so many occupations (doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, cops, firefighters, the list of essential workers goes on), as a flight attendant, I felt this meme in the deepest parts of my soul.

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When I first became a flight attendant a year ago, I knew my immune system was going to take a bit of a beating.

We touch hundreds of travelers every single day, many of whom come on board sick. We lift their bags. We brush their hands during cart service. We’re given trash, used tissues, and sometimes vomit into our bare hands.

On top of that, the planes themselves — our offices — very rarely (if ever) undergo a deep cleaning. In fact, our cleaners only have 5 minutes to “clean” the entire aircraft.

We eat our food in front of the lavatory door and watch passengers go in barefoot and come out without washing their hands. Sometimes, we don’t get a breath of fresh air from sunup to well past sundown.

I came into this job expecting to get sick more often than usual, and I did. In just 12 months I’ve had two sinus infections and a double ear infection, neither of which I’ve experienced before starting this career.

So, despite the alarming COVID-19 statistics, no, it’s not getting sick that scares me. That part I'm used to.

Watching the entire aviation industry deteriorate, however, is pretty terrifying.

Though people bring an infinite amount of germs onto the aircraft with them when they travel, most don’t normally think about it.

Before news broke about COVID-19, only every once in a while would I see someone wearing a mask onboard or sanitizing their seat despite high rates of illness after traveling.

However, this novel coronavirus outbreak quickly went hand-in-hand with travel as it spread so easily through cruise ships and airports. People suddenly became hyper-aware of their surroundings, and it was only a few days before more and more passengers began showing up wearing masks, gloves, and sanitizing wipes — or stopped flying at all.

Though our government is considering putting a pause on domestic travel altogether, as of today, domestic airports in the U.S. are still open and flights are still running. And much like the members of that ill-fated Titanic band, as a flight attendant I’m expected to show up with a smile on my face and do the work of keeping our passengers safe and at ease, though honestly, I feel anything but.

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Just today, the CEO of my airline sent employees an email sharing the disheartening numbers: flight loads are down 25% from last year, with the company removing 20% of flying for April and 25% for May. The company is also offering (unpaid) voluntary time off for cabin crew, a scary precursor for layoffs.

According to CNN, the CAPA Centre for Aviation estimates that “most airlines in the world will be bankrupt by the end of May unless governments intervene.”

To put this into perspective, British Airways’ chief executive called this pandemic “worse than 9/11” for the aviation industry.

Less passengers means less flights, and less flights means less flight attendants.

While my airline is luckily still flying for now, albeit at a slower pace, some flight attendants have already felt the ripple effects of this pandemic.

In the beginning of March, UK-based airline Flybe officially went out of business thanks to the lower demand for flights. Some Flybe flight attendants learned that they were out of jobs while they were actually on the plane in front of passengers.

"An air hostess then started to give the opening safety brief and obviously doors were closed, steps removed, when the pilot called through and spoke with her,” a passenger told Sky News. "He then came out into the plane from the cockpit to explain they had just heard [we were] not flying. They were clearly hearing it as it happened, and even tried to bring humour to the situation. But it was so awful for them having their lives unfold in front of 200 strangers."

Other airlines have since followed.

The aviation industry is seniority-based, so at only a year in, I’ll be one of the first to go should layoffs hit my airline.

This career is more of a lifestyle than any other job I’ve ever done, and it’s not always easy — but I would’ve never expected it to be upended by something like this.

On top of it all, I haven’t forgotten that even though I may not be worried about catching the virus myself, I feel guilty for potentially helping spread it.

As the rest of the world begins to practice social distancing and governments recommend (and in some cases, mandate) self-isolation, here I am flying to as many as five different destinations each day.

I see constant posts on social media shaming those who are continuing on with their lives as though nothing is happening, and I can understand the outrage.

However, I wish people who have the luxury of working from home would remember that not everyone has that opportunity and those who can’t work from home are also likely the first who will lose their jobs completely.

These are truly unprecedented times for everyone, and until we hear otherwise, the flight attendant band will keep playing for our airlines and our guests.

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Micki Spollen is a YourTango editor, writer, and flight attendant.