The coronavirus has pretty much turned the aviation industry upside down and taken it on its wildest ride ever. No one could have ever predicted a pandemic of this proportion to have this kind of far-reaching catastrophic effect. But I don’t need to recap the horrors of COVID-19. Chances are you are experiencing it first-hand yourself. What I can tell you about is what it’s like to be deemed an essential worker in an industry where consumer demand is nonexistent as a result of the coronavirus, or as some flight attendants like to refer to it, “Rona.” (I sometimes wonder if the general population of my workgroup has an aversion to using too many multisyllabic words in day-to-day conversation.)
Have you ever RSVP’d for a dinner party only to get there and discover that many of the attendees cancelled at the last minute? You thought you were going to have a wonderful evening, but now you find yourself feigning awkward conversation with the few participants who did show up to this sad party while wondering in the back of your mind when would be the best time to excuse yourself and leave just so you can go home to heat up a frozen pizza and watch Hulu. That’s what being a flight attendant in the COVID-19 era feels like. The domestic flights rarely have more than 20 people on board, and most of the passengers are deadheading crew. Deadheading is a term that we use when the airline flies us as passengers during one or more segments of our trip. Deadheading can happen for many reasons, although these days it’s happening more frequently because airlines have cancelled so many flights that schedulers are scrambling to get crews from point A to point B just so they can work a flight to point C and then deadhead back to point A. Sounds confusing and pointless, right?
So here I sit, staring at an almost empty plane. The revenue passengers rarely seem to want anything with regards to food and drink, which is fine since the industry has whittled inflight service down to small bottles of water and prepackaged snacks. Many of them sit quietly, barely making eye contact as they enjoy the sense of security that comes from wearing a N95 mask. Misbehaved passengers who have no qualms about getting up when the seat belt sign is on are nowhere to be found. Other than one weird interaction I recently had with a passenger who became hostile because there were no luggage carts lined up on the jet bridge (something that was never done even pre-coronavirus), the flights have been boring and uneventful. That woman by the way was traveling by herself with a dog kennel, a baby, a car seat and two carry-on bags, and yet the airport was in the wrong for not having anything or anyone ready to assist her as she deplaned. Sorry, sugar, but maybe you’ve been in a coma, haven’t gone outside or read any news stories lately. We are in the middle of a global pandemic. So you can throw a fit, but the gate agent is not going to be your personal valet because you didn’t have enough god-given common sense to plan your travels accordingly.
The most challenging part about working flights in these coronavirus times is maintaining social distance from other flight attendants. Jesus, I don’t know what it is but flight attendants seem to have the hardest time comprehending that a cornerstone of social distancing means practicing it at all times with all people — this includes other flight attendants! I really think some of my peers are under the impression that we have some super immunity to COVID-19 that has yet to be discovered by scientists, but in the meantime, it’s an unspoken understanding between us. They believe we spend so much time in the air on these planes, coming in contact with so many different people that our immune systems must have built up a resistance to Rona. WRONG!
“Seriously though, don’t you think that by now we’ve all already been exposed and probably have the virus?” If one more flight attendant asks me this while we are sitting together on the jumpseat, I might be inclined to just open the aircraft door and jump out. No, I don’t have it, and I am trying to keep it that way. I even had one fellow flight attendant regale me with a story about her battle with the coronavirus a few months ago. I didn’t have the nerve to tell her that what she was describing to me sounded more like a really bad hangover. I was too busy making sure she was standing at least six feet away from me in the galley. It seemed like every time I took one step backward, she took another step forward. Forget pepper spray. I’d give anything for a small can of Lysol disinfectant spray that could attach to my key ring and double as mace in situations like this. The planes have never been cleaner as a result of the industry’s response to the pandemic. So on the bright side, I can always hide in a lavatory if the galley gets too crowded with chatty flight attendants and feel good about being in there since these lavs are finally getting the deep cleaning they deserve.
The overnight stays on my trips are different now too. Hotel check-ins now consist of wiping down all the surfaces and light switches in the room with antibacterial wipes. Since most cities are under shelter-in-place guidelines and I want to stay as safe and healthy as possible, the thought of venturing outside is far removed from my mind. Factor in that the hotel gyms, pools and restaurants are also closed, and my antibacterial wipe down ritual is the highlight of the layover.
This is the new normal. Even when the pandemic comes to an end and travel demand picks up, all of our behaviors will have changed as a result of COVID-19. Airline crew members… airport employees… passengers. We will all act differently. The days of carefree travel are long gone.