Since November 2019, people across the world have fallen victim to the pandemic known as COVID-19. As the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) describes it, COVID-19, which stands for “coronavirus disease 2019,” is a respiratory disease that can cause mild to severe illness, and sometimes death. As a five-year flight attendant, pilot-in-training, and small business owner, I’m at the center of the travel and hospitality industries and have watched it drastically affect myself and countless others in the airline world. With the United States in a state of emergency and most large cities locking down their citizens, it’s a difficult chapter for all. After witnessing the impact of the outbreak from the front lines for several months, I’m afraid this may just be the beginning.
As part of an ongoing effort to contain the virus, the US government has placed travel restrictions on China, Iran, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and most European countries. You won’t be surprised to hear that these restrictions have crippled my industry. Being a flight attendant during the coronavirus outbreak is surreal. Out of nowhere, our lives have changed. The thriving machine that was the airline industry has come to a screeching halt, and I can tell you first-hand that we are bracing for furloughs and layoffs in the coming weeks. Aviation is a driver of the global economy, so the restrictions have not only impacted airline employees but have trickled down to the businesses that depend on it to function. My hours have been significantly diminished, and I don’t get paid if I don’t fly. As a first step, my airline has offered voluntary leaves of absence, which means unpaid time off ranging from one to six months. If enough people don’t accept, the company will furlough its employees so it can reduce its workforce to meet an almost nonexistent demand. Recently, a pilot friend of mine who works for a regional airline was notified that half of his company’s aircrafts would be grounded. Now, he has received notice that his company will cease all operations on April 7, less than three weeks away. We’re not sure if the closure is temporary or permanent.
With such huge changes happening quickly, we are already looking for new ways to bring in money when we get laid off. I’m very nervous about what is in store and how I will make ends meet. No one can say how long the outbreak will last and if demand will snap back as quickly as we need. There will be seriously damaging consequences, not just in the airline industry, but in the world.
From personal experience, I can say that some businesses will close for good. In May 2018, I started my own “crashpad” business to supplement my modest income. Crashpads are an airline industry norm and are comparable to industry hostels. They offer pilots and flight attendants a cheap place to sleep and rest if they don't live in the city they work from. There are usually no lease terms, making it a flexible choice for airline crew, whose locations are always changing. I run a 16-bed airline crew crashpad. The business allowed me to fund my flight training, since the income of a flight attendant such as myself is not enough to cover my basic expenses, not to mention the flight instructor and aircraft rental fees that my training requires. Up until now, business has been steady. Now, I’m scrambling to come up with a plan to cover the extremely high cost of my crashpad housing, which is soon to be vacant. It has gone from a money-maker to a money-sucker at the worst possible time — when I could find myself entirely without a paycheck. I’m not only looking at losing my job, but closing the doors to a business I started from the ground up and have put my blood, sweat, and tears into.
As you can imagine, this is a lot for me to figure out all at once. Before the outbreak, there were frequent talks of an upcoming pilot shortage and rising wages and benefits for pilots, so flight training programs have really ramped up across the country. Things were looking very bright for student pilots, and now we're just unsure. Recently, Delta Airlines announced it would be grounding 300 aircraft, meaning a 70 percent reduction in its flight schedule. United has called for a 50 percent reduction in its workforce. American has grounded its wide-body international fleet, with more cuts expected. Hiring across the industry has been frozen and I’ve heard of several airlines sending home their trainees, even if they were only days away from graduation. I’m facing the possibility that flight schools will close and prolong my training. I know my future is in the airline industry so my goals have not changed, but at this point, I don’t know how I will make it happen.
Many flight attendants have been forced to call out of work because there’s no child care available to them. I am a reserve flight attendant, which means I cover the trips that are unstaffed due to last-minute call-outs, delays, contract limitations, and various operational needs. The differences between a reserve flight attendant and a senior flight attendant (those with many years in the industry) are vast, but the biggest is probably that senior flight attendants have a set schedule. What matters most right now is that these “line holders” have much more flexibility in their schedules. For example, if they need to stay home or don’t want to be on the front lines and risk bringing the virus home to their families, they can easily call out. Reserves, on the other hand, do not have this luxury. We have to show up when the company asks — sometimes with only a few hours’ notice — ready to work whatever trip, wherever we are needed. We have no set schedule and a much lower hourly pay rate. Flight attendants (and pilots, for that matter) are paid by the hour once the door to the aircraft is closed. Yes, you read that right: Flight attendants do not get paid until the door is closed. The whole time we are parking, going through security (we have express security most of the time, but not always), and walking to the other side of the airport to get to our gate just to find out it has been switched to the other side (yes, we have to do that too), completing our safety equipment checks, and the dreaded boarding process, we are not getting paid.
Glamorous, I know.
Although I am struggling with the fear of losing my job, business, and the means to fund my flight training, the worst part for me is the unknown and how quickly things are changing. The anticipation of the next bombshell is starting to wreak havoc. As flight attendants are part of a union, we have a contract in place with provisions for down-turns, but these are unprecedented times and we really don’t know if those protections will hold up. The company and union have been in discussions for days about what to do going forward, and we’ve had little communication about what is being considered, let alone on any numbers or layoffs. You can imagine the panic, speculation, and wild accusations running wild among the 28,000 flight attendants my company employs. The mystery breeds more fear, but all we can do is keep showing up to work until we’re told not to.
You might have noticed that I haven't actually expressed concern about contracting COVID-19 through my work. I'm doing a job that is still considered essential throughout the pandemic, and I’ve been in the midst of it day in and day out — all while cases continue to grow and some carriers are asymptomatic. Many flight attendants fear they will be carriers of the virus and pass it on to their loved ones. By and large, though, the bigger fear is losing the ability to provide for our loved ones in the first place.
I love the airline industry and so many things about it make these frustrations worth it. I have a sought-after job, but it isn’t always rainbows and butterflies, and some people may not be aware of the challenges.
I also recognize I am one of many. My story is not unique and I’m not sharing all this for sympathy. There are plenty of others who are losing just as much, if not more, during this time. Many of my co-workers and friends have houses to lose, children to worry about, and sick parents to take care of, on top of everything else.
It is important, now more than ever, to try to find the positive in every situation, no matter how difficult it is at the time. Sometimes I want to scream out in frustration and anger, but I can’t let it consume me and I hope you don’t let it consume you. By finding the silver lining and realizing it could always be worse, I am able to find things to be grateful for — and gratefulness is a magical medicine for the attitude. Besides focusing on the positive, I’m convincing myself of the importance of leaning on others. It’s a lot easier said than done. I like to believe I am strong and independent. But in times like these, I try to allow myself some grace.
It is ok to accept help, and in the coming months, many of us won’t have a choice. Shoot a quick text message to your friends. Pester that co-worker who hasn’t messaged back. Reach out to others and check in. Many times, the people who seem the strongest suffer in isolated silence.
If you know any flight crew or people in the travel industry, please let them know they are in your thoughts, and when we get to the other end of the outbreak, if you can afford to travel, (please, please!) book that trip you had to cancel.
We'll all be thanking you for it.