- As the novel coronavirus continues to spread around the world, the airline industry continues to be impacted by country-wide lockdowns and declining travel demand.
- John, a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines, described to Business Insider what a day in his life looks like, and how the airline is taking precautions to protect its staff still flying amid a pandemic.
- John said he chooses to continue flying because he believes flight attendants are risking their health and safety to ensure that people abroad can return home and that medical equipment and personnel can be transported to hospitals around the country.
- “We’re also on the frontlines of this crisis,” he said. “Obviously not at the same level as doctors or nurses, but we’re doing our best to keep people safe.”
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The airline industry has been hit particularly hard by the major societal changes brought on by the coronavirus. The number of cases around the world has seen exponential growth in recent weeks, leading to travel bans, flight cancellations, and country-wide lockdowns. Several airlines in the United States and the United Kingdom have already collapsed due to declining travel demand.
But some airlines have continued flying despite the uncertainty surrounding the virus spread, and airline CEOs have pledged to avoid mass layoffs if the government can provide critical aid money to protect the industry from collapse.
“It’s such a scary and uncertain time for everyone,” Delta Air Line flight attendant John told Business Insider. John, not his real name, asked that his identity be protected for fear of retribution at work.
“Flight crews are on the frontlines of it all,” he added. “We’ve seen things change here so quickly.”
John says the magnitude of the coronavirus spread hit the airline industry about three weeks ago, shortly after President Donald Trump suspended travel to Europe.
“Everything went downhill so quickly, people stopped booking leisure flights,” John said. “That’s when everything became real.”
The State Department has since raised its global health advisory to Level 4, which means “do not travel,” and has advised US citizens to avoid all international travel. Trump said on Wednesday that he was also looking at expanding air travel restrictions to include some domestic travel.
Delta has since taken some drastic measures to cut costs, including parking half of its fleet, slashing executive pay, and sending 10,000 employees on unpaid leave. The world’s largest airline also planned to reduce its seat capacity by 70% and cut international flights by 80%.
“Most of our flights now don’t have more than 20 people on them,” John said. One of his most recent flights had less than five passengers.
John said he noticed the biggest changes to his schedule.
“Everybody used to know exactly what days they were supposed to work with exact destinations,” he said. “Then all of a sudden, trips started being canceled in our schedules for April.”
Flight schedules are usually sent out a month in advance, according to John, and he says that he has regularly scheduled flights throughout April. He has yet to receive his schedule for May, and worries about increased travel restrictions and flight cuts.
John said he’s had to adopt a more flexible arrangement in order to stay rostered on. He said that many of his flights have been rerouted or canceled, sometimes mid-flight.
“So right now I’m on reserve, or like on call, for whatever days I am supposed to work,” he said. “So if they call me to work, I go and they pay me for the hours that I was supposed to get paid for initially.”
“Things are just changing quickly, so you have to go in keeping an open mind that you may not do the exact thing you thought you were going to do and they might just throw you somewhere else completely,” he added.
Additionally, the airline has stepped up its safety precautions to ensure its flight attendants and passengers don’t get sick.
Delta has expanded its cabin cleaning processes, including using a fogging device to disinfect high-traffic areas on the plane and thoroughly cleaning its cabin surfaces including tray tables, seatback screens, and lavatories, after each flight.
John said the company also provides its crew with gloves to wear throughout the flight, though masks are optional.
“We can wear a mask,” he said. “They haven’t provided them to us yet, but they said they would start.”
He added that the meal services on domestic flights have become less frequent and that the variety of selection has been greatly reduced.
“We used to go around with our carts and offer any type of soda, coffee, water, snacks, and food for sale. First-class passengers used to be offered full meals. That’s all been stopped, and we’re just doing little bottles of water and a snack to each person in order to reduce contact between passengers and crew.”
Crew members try to observe social distancing measures in the air and on the ground. John said most airports look like “ghost towns.”
“It’s mostly crew walking around,” he said. “Most of the restaurants are closed, except for a few large chains.”
“It’s all very weird and scary,” he said.
The US recently passed a stimulus package known as the CARES Act, which states that airlines accepting federal aid cannot reduce workforces before September 30, though it’s unclear what might happen to workers beyond that point.
John said that some of his colleagues remain worried about losing their jobs, and many have chosen to stop flying due to the risk of contracting the disease in transit.
“Nobody has been forced out, but a lot of them have taken unpaid leave,” he said.
John said he chooses to continue flying because he believes flight attendants are risking their health and safety to ensure that people abroad can return home and that medical equipment and personnel can be transported to hospitals around the country.
“There are people calling for all flights to stop because travel can contribute to spreading the disease,” he said. “But others want to continue helping bring people home.”
“We’re also on the frontlines of this crisis,” he said. “Obviously not at the same level as doctors or nurses, but we’re doing our best to keep people safe.”