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“I wouldn’t want to risk my life serving drinks on the way to Paris”: A flight attendant on coronavirus

One American Airlines flight attendant on working, not working, and the possibility of a bailout.

A flight attendant wearing a breathing mask.
A flight attendant aboard an Aegean Airlines flight.
Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The air travel industry is headed toward catastrophe. Amid a devastating shock to the stock market, a massive slowdown of consumer demand, and unprecedented border closures issued by governments all over the world, CNN reported that dozens of carriers could be bankrupt by May. Currently, airlines are petitioning the government for a bailout totaling $50 billion, but as of yet that relief hasn’t been pushed through Congress. This is dire news for the global economy, but nobody feels the effects more than flight attendants like Jake (who is being referred to by a pseudonym to protect his privacy). He isn’t sure when, or if, he’ll be going back to work for American Airlines.

Jake is one of the 26,000 flight attendants represented by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants union. He was in the air as recently as two weeks ago and is currently enjoying some time off with the fading hope that his job will still exist by the weekend. In fact, he says that there’s a growing belief among flight attendants his age — 34 and untenured — that they could be out of a paycheck for the rest of the year. Where else could they turn if that happens? With gyms, bars, and restaurants closing up across the country, the entire service industry has been ravaged overnight. Pretty much everyone he knows in the industry is either panicking or scrambling. Jake is lucky in that regard; he rents property on the side and expects to be able to survive an extended coronavirus winter.

Jake tells me that he was always careful to wash his hands during flight service, and as a young healthy man, he never felt too concerned about contracting coronavirus. (Instead, he’s far more worried about passing an infection to his elderly loved ones, though the disease can be dangerous for people of all ages.) But as a flight attendant, he knows that thousands of his colleagues are above the age of 60, which makes the industry that much more precarious during a pandemic. We talked about that, as well as what his contingency plans are and how coronavirus has made the average passenger a smidge more courteous.

When did things start to get weird with coronavirus and this job?

I’d say about a month ago. I had a senior working with me, and she had never, in her 35-year career, flown a domestic flight. We were going to Tulsa or something. She had only done international. That’s when I thought, “Oh, if they’re flexing all these people …”

Flight attendants have always been a different breed. We’ve always washed our hands like crazy and checked the beds for bedbugs. But we were all pretty naive until about March 14. I had a flight, Austin to Los Angeles, on an airplane that could hold 181 people. There were 54 passengers and six crew members. I had two passengers in Business Class. That has never happened.

Are you still working? Or are you at home?

I’m on my days off. I’m off for the next three days. We’re all anticipating a national shutdown, so realistically I don’t think I’m going back to work for the rest of the month. I’m actually on reserve right now, and because of our union contract, I’m guaranteed a certain amount of money. So if they shut down today, I still get paid. But if I wasn’t on reserve, I’d be screwed.

I have a schedule for next month, but I got an email from the company saying that they’re going to cut my schedule. It’s pretty freaking fluid. We’re all quite nervous. We’re frightened.

What are you hearing from other flight attendants?

I’ve got friends at Southwest, Frontier, and American, and we’re all basically crapping our pants. Those of us that have less than 10 years of seniority are genuinely concerned that we’re going to lose our jobs for six months to a year. The Southwest CEO, Gary Kelly, sent out an internal memo saying they are in worse shape financially than they were after 9/11. That blows my mind.

If you got a call in a couple of days to go back to work, would you be gung-ho about that? Or are you worried about transmission?

I was thinking about that yesterday. I’m 34, my parents are in their mid- to late 60s. I’m not concerned about getting it, me personally, but I’m concerned about giving it to someone more vulnerable. Everyone I’ve spoken to has said the same thing. We don’t want to kill our parents.

Do you know what the way out is here? Some sort of bailout? Universal basic income? What kind of help do you want to see federally?

Whether or not I agree with bailouts, we’re going to get one from the sound of it. On a micro level, if we’re affected — and it sounds like we’re gonna be, because they’ve already slashed our flying by 20 to 30 percent — I would prefer the federal government steps in with the UBI. I’m not offended by that idea. Most of my colleagues would agree with that.

The top CEOs sent a letter to the Senate the other day saying they would only use a bailout for payroll protection. Obviously, I don’t trust a major CEO as far as I could throw them, but we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it.

Do you have any contingency plans if you’re out of work for the next six months?

You found a more unique situation in me because I collect money through rent, which should keep me afloat. Most of us can’t say that. Your average flight attendant makes about $45,000 a year. That’s industry-wide. You can top out at six figures if you’re careful. I have a friend who was a bartender before this and thought she could fall back by working at Chili’s. But guess what? Can’t do that now. So most of us that have no other qualifications are concerned.

Have attendants that are a bit older and are more vulnerable expressed any concerns?

In the past few weeks, I’ve only flown with people younger than me. But we do have, in our 30,000 flight attendants, 5,000 that are retirement age. If I were them I would take this seriously and consider retiring. I wouldn’t want to risk my life serving drinks on the way to Paris.

Has the behavior of passengers on the planes changed at all? Are they more conscious? Has that made the job easier?

I do actually think people are more forgiving. There’s a lot less stress. At American, we stopped our hot-towel service and stopped using reusable glasses, and nobody cared. There’s an attitude of, “You do what you gotta do.”

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