June 22, 2024

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This Is What It’s Like to Be a Flight Attendant During the Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has upended the lives of American workers — especially those in “essential jobs,” who continue to go to work in the midst of the outbreak, including nurses, pharmacy technicians, flight attendants, grocery store employees, and caregivers. InStyle spoke to women in these fields about what their day-to-day life looks like right now, their concerns for themselves and their families, as well as how those of us staying home can help.

Read more of these stories here.

Emily, a flight attendant based in Boston, Massachusetts

Emily, whose last name has been withheld for privacy, has been a flight attendant for three years, and is currently still working. However, she fears for her job as other airlines have laid off employees. She lives with roommates and is based out of Boston.

I have been a flight attendant for three years now. Usually we work a minimum 70 to 100 hours a month. We’re probably in the air six to eight hours a day. But our days can be as long as 14 hours.

I actually noticed [changes due to the coronavirus] back in November. We had a layover in Flushing, New York. In the Chinatown area there, everyone was wearing masks and everyone in the hotel we were staying at — all of the housekeepers, people working that were cleaning the building and stuff — they were all wearing masks. I asked someone, “Why is everyone wearing masks?” And a girl said, “Oh, you haven’t heard? There’s this new virus in China called the coronavirus and apparently it’s spreading pretty quickly around there.” That’s when I first heard about it. And I hadn’t really heard about it since until two weeks ago when it started really blowing up.

As far as precautions, I know that we’re taking extra precautions for a clean work environment. [We’re] deep cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting the planes every single night. But as far as us flight attendants, the company has also stocked our planes with Clorox wipes. So we literally are just wiping the planes down and we’re handing [wipes] out to customers to wipe their seats. Every single flight I’m wiping my galleys down, I’m wiping pretty much everything down all the time. That has gotten more extreme over the last week, maybe two weeks.

We’re not wearing masks because the CDC advises that we don’t wear them. But the company has allowed us to wear gloves if we want to. I don’t wear gloves because I wash my hands all the time.

I’m nervous, but not about being at work. I mean, I love my job and I’m so grateful that I still go to work and that I still have a job right now, because I know other airlines have already issued layoffs and furloughs. That’s what’s most scary for me. At the same time, it’s a mix of emotions. I have confidence that my company is supporting us and supporting its crew members. Our leadership has been really transparent and supportive, keeping us updated daily with as much information as is available. I’m actually really pleasantly surprised. I’m proud they’re keeping us as informed as they are; I can imagine they are under a lot of stress as well.

I feel grateful that I still have a job and I can still show up to work every day. At the same time, I know that if nobody’s traveling, then we’re not bringing in an income, and that’s not really sustainable. I think everyone in the airline industry is feeling that. Not even just the airline industry — I know hospitality, hotels, cruise lines, travel agencies — we’re all feeling it right now, every day.

I’m lucky, I live like five minutes [from the airport] so I actually either walk to work or I take the train. I’m not avoiding the train, but the train is limiting its services so it’s now only running maybe once every 10 minutes (rather than three), and far fewer people are on it.

[I’ve noticed fewer people on planes] just over the last couple of days. It kind of just depends on the route. A lot of business routes understandably are not as full because a lot of people are now working from home and are not traveling for work. Vacation routes or international flights are not going out right now. A lot of countries have closed their borders, so that affects things too.

[When I do have down time to de-stress], I mean, I was going to the gym. I go to OrangeTheory. I was going there almost every single day up until a couple days ago when Boston issued a statement basically saying all gyms, stores, restaurants — everything had to close down. I know in New York they did the same thing. That was how I was handling [stress] before, by going to the gym. Now I literally go to work and I go home and I try to do OrangeTheory workouts on the computer. I’m just staying inside, not socializing, not doing anything. But also trying to take care of myself.

The only thing I can really say is do not fly if you’re not feeling well. If there is any chance you could be sick or you’re just not feeling great or you’re susceptible to things, stay home and take care of yourself. That’s pretty much all I can say because it’s hard. With planes, people might think, “Oh, I’m stuck in this metal tube with a bunch of people, how is that safe right now?” The air is actually recycled every three minutes and it’s probably cleaner than a lot of air that we’re breathing on a day-to-day basis. But with that said, if you’re going to be in closer quarters with people, it’s tough. I would just say assess your situation. If you’re traveling for spring break to go party, probably cancel that. But if you’re going to go visit family or you have something that is really important, like you’re going to go babysit your nieces and nephews because they’re out of school and your sister has to work or something: People have to do what they have to do.

And when people are traveling, that means I get to keep my job. So it’s hard for me to say the right thing to do. And on a personal level, I just graduated college a few years ago, so this is my first real job. And it never crossed my mind that something like this could happen — that one day I’d be employed and then the next day maybe not. I’ve created a whole life for myself — I’m from the west coast and I moved to the east coast. Just the thought of that all being gone in a matter of days, having to get rid of my apartment, move home, find a new job, and all those things. I think that that is the biggest wake up call for me. Nothing is guaranteed and things can flip upside down in no time.

I work with flight attendants who worked through 9/11, so for them, that was their major wake-up call. Obviously, they’re nervous and unsettled by all of this right now, but, at the same time, they’re a little bit more prepared than someone like me.

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This job is really stressful, whether or not this situation is going on, just the job itself is stressful. Our hours are pretty crazy, we’re working throughout the night, sometimes you get cancellations or delays and you’re just sitting at the airport. Your days can be 14 to 18 hours. Sometimes it’s just so easy to turn on each other.

But I do feel like my company, we’re a smaller airline but I feel like we’ve really come together at this moment. I think that this experience has humbled many of us and brought us closer together. And I see that with customers too. I see customers helping each other, going out of their way to share wipes with each other or to just share little jokes. I saw this dad holding another family’s kids so that they could wipe down the seats before the kids went in. I just feel like everyone is looking out for each other right now. Even though tensions are high, we’re all in this together.

Follow our series on essential women in the fight against COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.

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