Almost overnight airports and planes have become some of the most risky places on earth as coronavirus spreads via international travellers.
Most of Australia’s cases were acquired overseas and brought into the country via air travel.
But as airlines around the world lay off staff and ground planes many pilots and flight attendants have no choice but to keep working — grateful to be among those who are still employed but terrified of the potential consequences of doing their job.
Jess* is a flight attendant for a US airline and says working during the outbreak has left her feeling “worthless” as passengers fail to cover their mouth when they cough or keep their hands washed.
“The [passengers who] don’t wipe anything down and don’t wear any type of face protection, we are angry with them and honestly they scare us,” she says. “I wish we could kick them off [the plane]. They are sick or not feeling well and yet they still travel.”
For the cabin crews and pilots who are still flying, work has become a bizarre and often scary experience.
But there isn’t much of a choice. It’s either risk the virus or face unpaid leave or even redundancy.
Many cabin crew feel uncomfortable every time they get on a plane. Flight attendant Brandon*, who works for a North American carrier, knows two colleagues who were on a flight with a passenger who tested positive for coronavirus and are now positive themselves.
For many airline staff, the potential for passengers to spread the disease is a real worry.
“We come to work every day hoping that a cough is just seasonal allergies,” Brandon says, “We hope that as more positive test results come back, we didn’t fly with that person and if we know them that they will be okay.”
At the same time the desperate need to keep their jobs mean the flight attendants themselves sometimes take risks with their health.
Brandon feels that the safety of crew members on some airlines isn’t being treated as a priority.
He is continuing to work despite having developed a cough, but he says it is not considered enough for him to be granted a test.
“We can’t seem to get tested unless we’ve been confirmed to have been exposed to someone who is positive,” he says.
Brandon says he is also unable to stay home to recover, or see how the cough develops, unless he has a doctor’s note advising him to self-isolate.
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Risks are all around
Many passengers are hygiene conscious and hyper-aware of the risks around them.
On one of Jess’s flights a passenger boarded in a disposable rain poncho, thick rubber cleaning gloves and a full-face shield on top of a mask and goggles. “Nothing was left uncovered,” she says.
On another, tensions boiled over when an Asian woman was seated near to a panicked Caucasian couple:
“[They started] demanding not to sit anywhere close [to her] and yelling that she should be wearing a mask and gloves because she was going to infect us all,” she says. “We moved the woman to first class … luckily she couldn’t hear very well … I’ve never been so mad and embarrassed.”
Airlines still flying have also made changes to the way they operate to reflect concern about coronavirus.
New safety measures are being taken in the airports, not only for passengers but for cabin staff as well.
European flight attendant April* says her cabin crew have their temperatures and documents checked every time they land.
“We were escorted by [security],” she says. Then their documents were checked by the police. “[The] reason is that now only Hungarian citizens are allowed to get into the country.”
Normally, they simply get into a crew car and their passports are processed by border control.
New cleaning procedures
Airports are empty and April says she often sees more staff than passengers. Things have changed onboard too.
Brandon says that on his airline cleaners spray and wipe seats with disinfectant before each flight.
“They then perform their normal cleaning,” he says. “We then confirm to the agent that the plane has been cleaned properly, the agent double checks and once we all agree, we begin boarding,” he says.
The new procedures have doubled the amount of staff required for pre-boarding preparations and tripled the amount of time it takes, Brandon says.
During flights, cabin crews are now typically given masks and other safety materials by their airlines, both to use themselves and to distribute to passengers.
April gives two antibacterial wipes to every passenger. “They can … clean the seat area, tray tables, armrests or whatever they want to around themselves, or use it for the hands,” she says. “We have masks and gloves available and a very strong sanitising spray.”
At the airline she works at, no extra cleaning, or the use of sanitising resources, is compulsory but it is available if the crew needs it. Other companies have fixed rules regarding protection against COVID-19.
Airline staff are also trained in how to react if there is a health issue during a flight.
April remembers one flight during which a passenger complained of breathing difficulties, a sore throat and fever.
“He looked super pale and felt weak,” she says. “We gave him the mask and gloves and we re-seated him in the last row. We asked the other passengers to move forwards.”
But many flight attendants believe the safety measures are not enough.
Brandon believes all travel should be halted. “If you are going to impose travel sanctions, with crippling economic effects on the whole country… just ground all air, sea and land travel for three weeks. When there are exceptions, [coronavirus] continues to spread.”
Nothing to worry about?
But while most flight attendants feel airports have now become very dangerous places, some believe the concern is overblown.
Sarah* is a flight attendant with a US airline. She feels that passengers should minimise worry and instead focus on being very diligent about personal hygiene.
“It’s not just hygiene,” she says, “keep up the habits of being courteous, looking out for each other, take this time to grow individually for yourselves, your friends and family, and for strangers too.”
Sarah is not scared to fly. She is more concerned about what would happen to her and her colleagues if they had to leave the sky.
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“I don’t have a crash pad and usually sleep in the lounge at my [airline] base,” she says. “If I contracted coronavirus, I would have no place to go.
“My family are all essential personnel in my home city and if I spread or exposed the virus to any of them … a good chunk of my city could potentially shut down.”
Surviving the uncertainty
Being out of work is not uncommon in the aviation industry at the moment.
In Australia, Qantas has been widely criticised for its recent decision to stand down two-thirds of its workforce, Virgin Australia has furloughed 8,000 of their 10,000 staff members, Jetstar is grounding all but three of its 193 plane fleet.
Charter pilot Wayne Watts knows many other pilots who have lost their jobs because of COVID-19.
“One [pilot I know] tried to get back to his wife and family as they are in Thailand with his wife’s parents and [he] got stuck [in Vietnam]… as the borders are closed everywhere,” he says.
“It’s not just the pilots of course. Cabin crew, maintenance personnel, ticketing agents are all affected.”
Because he lives and works overseas, Wayne’s life would become very complicated if he was laid off.
“I would … lose my resident card, visa and essentially become a tourist,” he says. “So besides the financial issue of not …having a job, I would be forced to move … back to the USA without my wife who’s a Vietnamese citizen. It would be next to impossible to find another pilot job after this pandemic is over, due to my age.”
‘Let’s hope for the summer’
But there is hope. Some airlines continuing to pay their workers even if they are grounded and other airlines are offering reduced salaries. Others are offering unpaid leave but with continued job security.
Emirates is reducing most salaries by 25 to 50 per cent for three months. Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes, Brazil’s largest domestic carrier, will be cutting workers and executives’ pay by 35 per cent and 40 per cent respectively for three months.
Air steward Reuben* hasn’t flown for almost a month now but his Central Asian airline, a national carrier, is providing a basic salary.
He’s trying to make each day as normal as possible.
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“Every morning at 9am [my crew is] having a conference call on Skype and having coffee together because we cannot [gather] in one house like we did before,” he says.
But even if they still have job security, many flight attendants and pilots are worried that the aviation industry itself may not recover. No-one knows when the pandemic will end and what will happen when it does.
Many airlines say it’s going to take significant government bailouts for the industry to survive.
But for now there is little anyone can do except wait and hope
“Let’s see. Let’s hope for the summer… let’s hope that… at least this year it will be over,” says Reuben.
“[For now] just follow every advice. Wash your hands more often, take showers more often… follow the advice of the local authorities… be safe. I know it is hard to stay home, I feel it myself, but I think it is important until everything is over.”
*All names have been changed.