Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.
This as-told-to essay, from a flight attendant working for one of the “Big Three” airlines—American, Delta, United—has been transcribed and edited for clarity by Molly Olmstead.
We all started hearing about it over the winter, as it developed in Wuhan. At that time, I wasn’t flying any routes to China, so it didn’t feel extremely relevant to me. But little by little, those flights became a greater concern. The company started giving flight attendants who didn’t feel comfortable traveling to China the opportunity to decline those trips. Everything seemed fairly normal to us until recently, when almost all of our international flights got cut suddenly.
Two weeks ago, people were still flying. They weren’t at full capacity, but people were still fairly comfortable. But in the last week, the number of passengers has decreased a lot. I had a flight the other day that was at 8 percent capacity. Flights between larger cities and big connections are still fairly full, but the decrease is still considerable. We’ve had a lot of flights going out at about 30 percent capacity.
Because flights are so open, most people do have a little bit more room to spread out and be apart from one another. But people definitely seem concerned. A lot more passengers have been bringing their own sanitary supplies, wiping down their seats, wearing face masks, wearing gloves. I’ve also noticed people declining drinks and snacks altogether, just not wanting to interact with us at all. In an ideal world, I don’t think any of us would be interacting or handing things off right now.
One thing that I took note of on my last trip: A lot of passengers who come on the airplane and feel sick for unrelated reasons have become defensive about it. They’ve started to give me too much information about the reason for their illnesses. So I’ve had passengers go into great detail about how they had too much to drink last night. Or a mom will give me an in-depth description of what her kids ate—how many doughnuts they had and what flavor they were—as the reason they’re in the bathroom with an upset stomach.
After any single interaction that I have with a passenger, I try to make my way to the bathroom and wash my hands. Some of our service standards have changed. We’re no longer handing out blankets and pillows. We no longer serve glassware on board. Any time there’s a basket of communal snacks or something, we’re handing them out instead of having people reaching in. I can control what I’m doing. But I don’t feel like I have control over how many people are flying or if anybody’s coming on sick.
It’s a scary time. Going to work is tough right now. I’m worried about getting sick myself. I’m worried about the future of my job and paying bills if my company has to furlough employees. I have a family member who is at especially high risk with a respiratory illness, and I worry about her. And my husband has temporarily moved out of state to help her, so I haven’t seen him in weeks.
When I come home, I don’t want to be around any of my friends or family for fear of infecting them, since I have interacted with hundreds of people. Being a flight attendant is notoriously an isolating job for a lot of people already. It’s hard to be away a lot of the time from family and friends. So it can also be tough right now to feel like we can’t interact with anybody.
Two or three weeks ago, there was a lot of fear from the public about the fact that we’re high-risk. I did hear from a few co-workers that they had been turned down from, like, hair appointments. And uninvited from events by family and friends. A lot of people like myself are doing voluntary self-isolation between trips, so it’s coming more from us at this point.
Right now, the airlines are taking volunteers to take leaves of absence. Thousands of flight attendants have already taken leaves for the coming months. We don’t know exactly how many flights will have to be canceled down the line. Ideally, we’ll have enough volunteers, but if flights continue to be cut, then it seems like there will be a high likelihood of furloughs.
The flight attendants who were around during 9/11 are certainly talking about it. It’s one of the few things that feels similar to them, in the way that it’s affected the airlines. They’re just kind of reliving those memories: the difficulties of coming to work and of being scared. And the difficulties of not knowing what the future of the airlines is going to be—whether they’re going to have a job in the future. So there are a lot of parallels there.
It’s just kind of overwhelming right now. I’m still employed, which a lot of people aren’t right now, and I’m grateful for that. But I think it’s undeniable that the nature of the job makes me high-risk. I’m in a confined space interacting with a high volume of people. Just being in close quarters with so many people makes it inevitable.