Demand for flights is picking up. While the airline industry is still struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, there have been reports of packed flights, filled primarily with vacation travelers defying warnings from public health experts. This development has been met by complicated feelings from those working in the industry: More flights means better job security but also greater potential for exposure in the airports and staffing the planes.
Slate spoke to a 34-year-old flight attendant with one of the “Big Three” airlines (American, Delta, and United). He spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his employment. His answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slate: How has the pandemic affected your job?
Flight attendant: [The work itself] has become tremendously boring. For flights under 4½ hours, we are not doing food service. I’m only doing cocktails or soft drinks on request. There’s a lot of me sitting in my jump seat. Currently, I’m about halfway through the fifth John Carter book. There are plenty of folks who are just loving it because they just go to work and collect a paycheck. But I really enjoy interacting with people.
I actually am now working nicer trips. That’s kind of neat. I am very junior in a seniority-based industry. From that point of view, I’ve had a big jump in my seniority because of all the folks who have taken the paid leaves or the unpaid leaves or retired as a result of the virus.
What do flights look like right now?
First class is usually empty. It’s a much lower percentage of business travelers. In the main cabin, I’m seeing a lot of families. Summer travel is starting to pick up. I had a trip to Orlando the other day and it was loaded down with families and kids. I think a lot of it is we’ve parked over half of our fleet. So you have fewer people but also fewer planes.
But you’re starting to get vacation travelers who are just willing to risk it. My flight home from San Jose a few days ago had one paying passenger in business class. And in a main cabin that holds 144 people, I think we had 120.
What are the passengers like?
People have gotten nicer. Now I get more thanks for coming to work. And everybody’s doing as we asked. It’s been remarkable, to be honest. We had a mechanical delay coming out of somewhere the other day and there was not one bad word. [Another time] we were delayed five hours and not one person said anything rude.
What are the airports like?
At the moment, Dallas–Fort Worth is the busiest airport in the country. So all of my flights in and out of Dallas are full. I mean, I think legally right now we can only do 85 percent capacity. But we’re going out full, everywhere. One of the agents told me that people were getting clever. When certain states were requiring people from New York City or New Orleans to self-quarantine, a lot of folks were transitioning through Phoenix or Dallas on separate tickets so they could not look like they were coming from those cities.
But I was in San Jose, and they just blocked off half the airport because nobody’s flying in and out of there. Which was kind of spooky. It was the same thing in Austin, or Baltimore. It was just a ghost town.
What precautions are they taking?
You know the folks who will push you to your next gate if you’re incapable of walking on your own? They have been transitioned—they wear T-shirts now that says “strike team” on them. And they go around with a bottle of bleach and wipe stuff down.
At each gate, depending on the airport, you’ll see tape on the floor. And the agents, as they’re boarding, will say, “We’re going to pause and let everybody settle, and then we’re going to do the next group,” rather than have everybody lining up. As far as I can tell everybody’s wearing a mask.
How does it compare with earlier in the pandemic?
We were down 85 percent, maybe 90 percent, in terms of passenger numbers in April. We are up to 55 percent booked for July. When you go to DFW Airport, it looks like a normal day because of the way they’re routing flights.
I was on reserve last month, and I did not fly for the entire month because there were so few flights. But the last four days of May, I flew all four days, and every single one of my flights was full. So the end of May was when it started to tick back up. We’ll see what happens a month from now [if] people are getting sick again.
Are there any things you’re worried about?
The biggest problem is I’m probably going to lose my job in October for at least a few months because the Big Three all took government aid grants or loans. [Editor’s note: The terms of a $25 billion federal aid package prohibit airlines from laying off employees until the end of September.] Anybody with less than about eight years of seniority is looking at their future wondering what’s going on. At my airline, almost every single one of us has a degree. So most of us have something to fall back on. I know for sure I’m getting a furlough. I’m not even going to lose any sleep over it. The last time I was furloughed from a previous job, I worked construction for a little while—I may go back to doing that. I used to be a firefighter—I could go back to fire and chemical safety. Or, heck, I may just try and ride it out on unemployment for four months and see if I can come back.
How have you felt about your own safety?
Personally, I’m not terribly concerned. I know that’s a very arrogant and selfish way to put it. But from what I’ve seen, especially in the past few weeks, the crews on the ground at the airports are genuinely cleaning the bejesus out of the cabins. And those of us who work in the galleys as attendants, we’re cleaning as well. So I’m just gonna roll with it.
Do you want more people to fly right now?
Yes, but only insofar as people are taking the precautions that they should be taking. I flew the other day with this crotchety old man who refused to wear masks. That guy kind of bothered me. So if you’re going to fly, that’s OK, just please wash your hands and cover your mouth.