The Way We Work Now

I’m a Flight Attendant. The Airlines Don’t Care Enough About My Health or Yours.

The airline industry’s new safety protocols are merely a placebo to encourage people to fly again

A morning ritual is a difficult thing to keep up when the world as you know it is falling apart — especially when you work in the airline industry.

I woke up this morning in a hotel, which I typically do three mornings out of the week. I did yoga for 15 minutes, something I’m trying to do more regularly. I made my iced coffee. I took my medication and followed my skin care routine. I put on my uniform and my airline-issued face mask. Then, I went downstairs to take the hotel van to the airport with the rest of my crew.

Except for the face masks, this could have been any of my mornings from last year. But today, on the way to the airport, my first officer announced he’d received his WARN notice from the airline, an alert giving employees a heads up that mass layoffs are likely imminent. This meant that, come October, he will most likely lose his job.

The email was signed: “No matter how this furlough goes, never forget how it felt to be a pilot.” What an epitaph.

I’d always said that people have to travel, and thus I would always have a job. But what I should have considered was: Will people always want to? And, more importantly, will people always be able to?

I was six years old when 9/11 happened and 13 during the 2008 economic crisis. I had no concept of the airline industry — or any industry — then, but I’ve been assured by long-time crew members that the current pandemic’s impact on commercial flying is on par with, if not worse than, both previous crises.

When the Covid-19 virus first began making waves across the ocean, I was in Germany, blisteringly sick. One month later, China began its first quarantine procedures. Three months after that, commercial airlines began requiring crew members to wear face masks. Passengers weren’t required to wear face masks — with exceptions, of course — until weeks later. This week, the airlines will stop accepting mask exemptions completely. I’m sure I don’t have to explain how inadequate this lengthy, slow-moving process has been.

The three American airline giants — Delta, United, and American — were each very public about capping their load capacity in order to enable “social distancing.” This became the punchline for many jokes among airline employees because, shockingly, there is no way to enable true social distancing on a plane. American Airlines capped the number of passengers on a flight at 85% of its total capacity. A Boeing 737 seats 162 people; 85% of that is 137 passengers (plus a jumpseating pilot, who sits in the flight deck). That meant there would be 25 open seats. On a full-sized aircraft, this hardly leaves any room to socially distance.

This was just one of many placebo “safety protocols” the airlines introduced, alongside actually allowing the cleaners time to clean the aircrafts between flights. Before, we were lucky if they had time to even take out the trash before the next flight began boarding. Now, they have time to take out the trash and vacuum. Of course, nothing short of complete sterilization would actually make a dent in the petri dish environment of a commercial airplane, but that was never really the point. The point was to make passengers feel comfortable flying again.

But at a certain point, we must confront the true heart of the problem: Why are we choosing to save jobs over people?

Flight crew members and flight engineers had the third most dangerous job in America even before the pandemic. Normally, when you think about someone dying on a plane, you picture a devastating crash. But this year alone, 600 Southwest employees tested positive for the coronavirus. Another 500 Delta employees tested positive in one month. The simple fact is we travel to too many places and interact with too many people to keep track of. Today I worked four flights and was in four different states. Tomorrow I will work three flights, through three states. Then I will go home to Philadelphia, which has begun relaxing its stay-at-home orders.

Flight crew are “essential workers,” so I haven’t experienced any real sense of quarantine. I was issued a special letter from my airline at the beginning of the pandemic, which identified me as an essential worker to any law enforcement who might stop me. I haven’t had to use it. Even during my city’s strictest time, no one really seemed to care. While my friends and family were sharing quarantine jokes and lamenting about working from home and missing the outside world, I continued to be outside. I brought my cousin, who is a nurse in Philly, some boxes of airline-issued face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. We chatted through our own masks, about working on the “front lines,” never knowing if today was going to be the day we’d take the virus home with us. That we had already come into contact with the virus was not in question. The question was always when it would stick.

Two months ago, my airline’s in-flight office left me a vague voicemail. I was concerned about the state of my job, but it was nothing so serious, they assured me. I had simply flown recently with someone who tested positive for the virus. They said I should get tested, but they couldn’t provide the test themselves. I looked into getting tested at the handful of places in Philly willing to test anyone who wasn’t showing symptoms or working at a hospital. It had already been a week. The testing sites willing to see me wanted me to wait several more days. I didn’t have several more days off; I was scheduled to work another trip later that week. When I told my supervisor this, he said they couldn’t give me the days off unless I tested positive first. And so I went untested.

I am not a skittish person. I am an optimist by nature. I am almost always willing to risk my welfare for a chance at experiencing something new. But it isn’t my health I worry about. I’m used to getting sick every few months, strong-arming myself through a vicious bout of flu. This job has wreaked havoc on my immune system. We get reprimanded for calling sick without a doctor’s note. Even if we show Covid-19 symptoms, we must first test positive before calling out. I’ve flown through several head colds and even sinus infections. I know what I can handle. But my elderly passengers, neighbors, relatives, my immunocompromised friends, and co-workers — I worry for them.

And now, on top of this, there is another shadow lurking: the furloughs. In April, the U.S. government offered commercial airlines $25 billion to keep them from going bankrupt and laying off millions of people. There were many stipulations attached to the grants turned loans, which included not furloughing any employees until at least September. After some hemming and hawing over the stipulations — particularly the one stating the airlines couldn’t buy back their own stock shares for almost two years — most accepted the bailout. Some airlines didn’t, but for most of us, our jobs were safe for another seven months.

But that deadline is fast approaching. United Airlines anticipates laying off 45% of its employees this fall. American Airlines is planning to shuck off 37% of its flight attendants. Airlines have a high turnaround rate, and so they are always hiring, which means they inevitably over-hire. An acquaintance of mine, who has been with her airline since 2004, has already received her WARN letter; even she doesn’t have the seniority to keep her job. What does that mean for me? I was hired by my airline in 2017.

At the airport, I speak with friends and co-workers. The conversation always begins with: “Are you still safe?” We mean both our health and job security.

U.S. airlines aren’t the only ones washing up on shore like beached whales, unsure how to get back in the water. Avianca, a major airline in Latin America, went under in May. Icelandair, in both petty revenge against the flight attendant union and a desperate grab for financial stability, has said it will fire every single one of their flight attendants. They claim their pilots will perform flight attendant duties in the meantime. The legality and practicality of this is questionable, as pilots are not trained in flight attendants’ medical and emergency procedures. (Also, it’s very likely that their pilots would rather quit and go to a different airline than become a flight attendant.)

This is far from the first time in the industry that a company, hoping to save money, has caused unmitigated damage not just to flight crews but to passengers. Of course, mistakes have been made; mistakes are human. But in the airline industry, mistakes cost lives.

I love my job, even with all the industry’s failings. I love traveling to different places and experiencing new things. I love meeting people from all corners of the planet and all walks of life. I love taking something that can be immensely stressful — traveling — and making it enjoyable for others. But at a certain point we must confront the true heart of the problem: Why are we choosing to save jobs over people?

The $25 billion the U.S. government handed the airline industry earlier this year isn’t much for giant corporations like Delta and American Airlines. And $1,200 in stimulus checks isn’t much for the average unemployed American struggling to make rent. The truth is, our societal priorities are backward. We’ve chosen labor over lives.

And so, I continue my morning rituals. I make coffee. I do yoga. I put on my uniform. These are the things I can control in my life. I can try to minimize the damage of what I can’t: recycling, shopping mindfully, composting, tipping well. Treating others with kindness wherever and whenever I can. Hoping for the best. Knowing that, whatever happens, I plan to survive. At the airport, I speak with friends and co-workers. The conversation always begins with: “Are you still safe?” We mean both our health and job security. I check my email over and over to see if my job is still safe. I ask myself, over and over, is it a job worth saving?

Writer of all sorts of things, but mostly the Dream subgenre. Professional traveler. Lesbian. Home cook. Philly.

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