With the coronavirus crisis spreading around the world, fewer and fewer people are booking air travel, and travel to and from Europe, Canada, and other countries has been banned or restricted to essential personnel. In response, U.S. airlines are seeking more than $50 billion in financial assistance from the government. Airlines are taking unprecedented measures to make sure their fleet of aircrafts are as germ-free as possible, with Southwest Airlines announcing plans to stop most beverage service aboard their planes. Still, even with extensive precautions, fear is mounting.
And flight attendants, whose job it is to fly every day and help keep passengers safe and comfortable, are not immune. For this 38-year-veteran of one of the largest and safest airline carriers in the United States, it’s a daunting new world.
Speaking to West Coast editor Jessica Radloff, she agreed to talk to Glamour about what it’s been like to travel during a global pandemic and shared what she wants you to know. We’re publishing her account anonymously to protect her identity.
Today I made one of the hardest decisions in my career. I chose not to fly. In the past several weeks, I’ve been in two locations that have had positive COVID-19 cases. The first was at LAX airport, the second at a shopping mall (where I went to pick up my uniform that was being tailored). Given that possible exposure, I decided I needed to do the responsible thing—stay home.
The week of 9/11, I was in Chicago for a week, and to now see the airports practically cleared out—it’s eerily similar.
I had tears in my eyes when I made the call to my airline to let them know I couldn’t do the route from LAX to Washington-Dulles. I didn’t expect to react as emotionally as I did, but when you’ve invested nearly 40 years of your life in the airline industry, it’s part of who you are. My bosses were extremely understanding and supportive. They’re being hyper-vigilant as well, considering we’ve had a couple coworkers who have tested positive for the virus.
The week of 9/11, I was in Chicago for a week, and to now see the airports practically cleared out—it’s eerily similar. Last week our flight loads were still pretty full, but this week they’ve dropped considerably. People are heeding CDC and government warnings to stay home, if it’s not essential travel. People are just staying put.
This isn’t the first health-related crisis I've worked through. I’ve been through SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), and Ebola. In dealing with each one, we’ve learned a lot. With H1N1—the swine flu—airlines removed pillows and blankets from their aircrafts. During Ebola, we wore gloves while serving.
But this is different. Like many people, I haven’t been able to see my parents in person because of their ages and vulnerabilities, so I miss them. And then on top of it, even though I feel well enough to work, I still have to send someone else in my place to fly. It’s very emotional; I feel pretty conflicted. Just last week I was in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Honolulu. Now I’m in my garden, which don’t get me wrong, I love, but it’s different. There’s this feeling that I’m not where I’m supposed to be—in the sky, at 40,000 feet.
I actually have a year’s worth of sick time built up, so I’m being paid and I know that both our company and our union are structuring different plans for employee support. They’re offering 30-, 60-, 90-day leaves of absences. They are honoring parents who have to stay home with their children. And if you’ve been in contact with someone that’s been confirmed to have the virus, they’re taking care of you so you don’t need to come in. If people just need to self-quarantine, they’re offering that as an option as well.
As for when I’ll fly again, I have allergies, which means at some point I’m likely to experience some of the symptoms (a sore throat and cough) that come with the virus, so I want to get some confirmation and advice from a health care professional. My temperature has been normal, and I’ll continue to monitor that as well.
Meanwhile, colleagues have started a Facebook support group, but as emotional as I’ve been, I don’t want to add to someone else’s level of anxiety. We are caregivers and first responders for our passengers, so it’s a little odd to be the one that needs the comfort. I’ve been relying on my husband and friends more than ever.
But if there’s one thing I take pride in, it’s how the airlines have responded to the pandemic. In addition to extensive cleaning, my airline has been providing hand sanitizer and wipes on the airplane for people, and I also hand out masks to people who request one.
A few days ago, a couple of passengers reached out and hugged me when disembarking and told me to stay safe. I stiffened up and they remembered and said, “Oh sorry, I'm healthy.”
On the planes, most of us are wearing gloves while we’re serving. One of my coworkers is even layering her hands with four sets of gloves. As soon as she’s served someone, she’ll peel that one off and then serve the next person. Then when she’s cleaning up, she’ll use another set of gloves. Maybe it sounds excessive, but we’ll do whatever it takes. Our company just wants to keep our passengers as healthy and safe as possible. That’s why when the coronavirus started spreading, the airline sent recommendations on how our service would change, and that’s continuing to evolve. I know another carrier has removed everything except single serve water bottles on their planes. Everything is changing day by day, hour by hour.
A few days ago, a couple of passengers reached out and hugged me when disembarking and told me to stay safe. I stiffened up and they remembered and said, “Oh sorry, I’m healthy.” Listen, I get it. People are very loving, and it’s hard to flip that switch so quickly. Then there are those who wear masks and gloves and want to be as wrapped up as possible. Take what precautions you need to.
Everyone keeps asking if I’m scared right now, but to be honest, I haven’t been that apprehensive. I’m more sad that I can’t fly. I’ve always been pretty vigilant when it comes to staying healthy, but perhaps now I’m scrubbing my hands as if I’m prepping for surgery. No wonder they feel like sandpaper!
On the flights, I’ve also noticed passengers trying to create more social distance between themselves. Our gate agents have to be aware of the weight and balance issues on each aircraft, but they’re doing what they can to accommodate social distancing.
Our cleaning crews have always been really wonderful, but I’ve never seen such a large formidable team come onto our airplanes and clean them so diligently. My mouth dropped open when I saw that the cleaning crew take up a third of the jet way. There’s probably a group of 10 to 15 people now that vacuum, clean every surface, wipe down every table tray, overhead bin, air vent, armrest, seatbelt, etc. You name it, every surface is being disinfected. That’s just how we have to operate during this crazy time.
I’ve heard people say planes have never been cleaner, and it’s probably true. Still, if you’re nervous to fly, take hand sanitizers and a face mask with you if that makes you feel more confident. And talk to the flight crew when you board. Tell them you’re nervous, and they can probably tell you all the different steps the airlines are taking to make you safe and keep things clean.
Last week my flights were still two-thirds or more full, but the flight I just missed was at around 50%, due to cancellations. Going forward, I think there’s a lot of uncertainty still on how that’s going to play out, but the only thing constant in our industry is change. And now, because of what’s going on as a result of the pandemic, there are going to be major changes. But eventually we will build back up. We always do.
I’ve been so proud of the work that my coworkers and our leadership and everybody’s been doing. We’re all in this together, and we’re doing everything we can to make you feel safe. We’re delivering loved ones to see the people that they love, and that crosses my mind a lot these days. Even though the travel industry is a business, we’re going to do everything in our power to get through this together. September 11th was a stunning time in history, and I think we’re in another stunning time in history. You can let it overwhelm you, or you can focus on how these difficult times help build character and strength. I’m doing the latter.
Jessica Radloff is the West Coast editor at Glamour.
Originally Appeared on Glamour