What It’s Really Like To Be A Flight Attendant During COVID

Photo: Arif Hudaverdi Yaman/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.
As spring break season comes to an end, it’s abundantly clear that hotspots like Miami’s South Beach have seen plenty of crowded parties — often indoors. Despite about 60% of U.S. colleges cancelling spring break, opting for shorter breaks or wellness days, some students chose to travel for their time off, even while COVID-19 cases have been on the rise in over half of U.S. states for the last several weeks.
The travel uptick isn’t limited to spring breakers, though, and is likely to continue into summer, says Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a union that represents about 50,000 flight attendants, 80% of whom are women. She predicts increased travel demand this summer, as more people continue to get their COVID vaccinations.
Rochelle Walensky, MD, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), warned last month that the spring surge in travel could spell a backslide for the fight against the virus: U.S. cases did indeed rise from an average of 55,000 a day on March 15 to an average of 70,000 a day now. Nelson echoed Walensky’s concerns, and spoke of the way in which pandemic fatigue appears to be guiding people’s travel choices.
“There is all this pent-up demand,” Nelson tells Refinery29. “People want to get up and go. We're seeing people who want to see their families, people who just want to get out and go to a vacation destination. But this is also of concern to us, if people are spreading the virus before we can get everyone vaccinated. … Plus, the numbers started ramping up before flight attendants had really adequate access to the vaccine. So that was concerning, too, because as we were serving fuller and fuller aircraft, people were very, very concerned that they didn't yet have the protection for themselves or their families as they're coming home from work in these increasingly populated spaces. And then, layer on top of that the fact that we are the mask police.”
As people become more confident traveling during the virus, flight attendants are finding that being the “mask police” is a disproportionately huge part of their jobs. 
“There's some people lately who just wear their mask to get by the gate agent and get down the jet bridge,” says Mitra Amirzadeh, 38, a flight attendant and AFA-CWA member based in Orlando, FL, who works with a low-cost carrier. “And then, they board the plane and don't want to wear their mask anymore. And it's like, wait a second. You knew you were going to have to wear this mask.” 
“I get it,” she continues. “You don't want to wear it. I don't either, but here we are. I agreed to wear a mask when I came to work today. You agreed to wear a mask when you boarded the plane today. I really try to just reason with these folks as much as possible. The rule is the rule. But if I can avoid things blowing up on board at 36,000 feet, that's always my goal. My goal is always to diffuse.”
Amirzadeh says that she’s had to put two passengers on the no-fly list during the pandemic: one who flat-out refused to put on his required mask, and one woman whom she had to remind seven times to put on hers. “When the lady was asleep, she kept pulling her mask off, and I had to wake her up. After seven times, we had finally had enough.”  

When the lady was asleep, she kept pulling her mask off, and I had to wake her up. After seven times, we had finally had enough.

Mitra Amirzadeh, flight attendant
She says the worst offenders are often New Yorkers who are “over” the virus en route to vacations in Florida, where she says many people have been going to escape both the cold and mask mandates. “Florida is like its own country when it comes to coronavirus,” Amirzadeh says, referring to the huge spring-break crowds that have been all over social media in the past month. Another big challenge for flight attendants has been telling people they can’t bring and drink their own alcohol onto the plane — something that was a U.S. federal regulation long before COVID, but which has become a particular problem as of late. “We had a girls’ trip yesterday, and they brought their own alcohol with them, and they had to be told more than once that they had to put their own alcohol away, that they were not permitted to consume it on board the commercial aircraft, it’s against federal regulations,” she says. 
The protocol in cases where passengers refuse to mask up — or put their booze away — is to try to “switch off” with other flight attendants when reminding people of the rules, to diffuse potential conflict with any one flight attendant, she says. But even this can backfire. A passenger spit on one of Amirzadeh’s coworkers recently, something she says she would not have handled well, particularly given the added danger during COVID: “Y’all would have seen me on the news.” 
Contracting COVID from a passenger is a reasonable scenario to fear, given that over 3,500 flight attendants have tested positive for COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic and an estimated 20 have died, according to the latest data from AFA-CWA. That said, the number is not definitive because of the lack of mandated contact tracing; while crews are required to track temperatures and symptoms and to self-report exposures, no U.S. airline is requiring crews to get tested on a regular basis (although some international routes do require it). Aside from the mask mandate, there are also various common airline-specific protocols, like that flight attendants have to wash their hands at least every two hours, and airlines have largely done away with food and drink service except on-demand.
And as far as vaccinations go, the AFA-CWA is continuing to call on governors to move essential aviation workers into tier 1b (or equivalent), which is in line with other non-medical essential workers and essential transportation workers. In many states, like Florida, they are in tier 2, which generally means the vaccine wasn’t available to them until this month. In some, it wasn't available to them until today, the deadline U.S. President Joe Biden has set for all adults to be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Nelson says she doesn’t have a clear number of how many flight attendants have been vaccinated, but that she guesses it’s about half of all crews. In other words, not enough, since these are high-contact jobs.
Passengers sometimes use their own vaccinations to try to avoid the mask rule, says Dymond Blossom Davis, 22, a flight attendant for a regional subsidiary of American Airlines. “A lot of people are like, 'I shouldn't have to wear a mask anymore 'cause I'm vaccinated,'” she says. “And it's like, the CDC guidelines have not changed for my plane or any other plane in America. Therefore, you need to wear a mask. Now, people are getting more bold and just not even trying to wear it coming on the plane. I've definitely had to stop boarding quite a few times to make sure that they have their masks.”
Now that masks are a national mandate thanks to the Biden administration, though, “we definitely have more backing than when it was just a company policy,” adds Davis. That doesn’t mean people don’t try to break the rules, though. “I did actually have someone that was not being compliant at all. And we were already in the air. So what had to happen was when we landed, we had the authorities meet him at the gate. He was escorted out of the airport. And he actually was meant to be flying out of that airport three days later and they found out he was not able to as he was no longer welcomed on my airline. He was put on the no-fly list as far as I know,” says Davis. “He was raising his voice at me and he was raising his voice at my other flight attendants. We didn't want to escalate the situation, but we did continue to tell him, like, you need to put your mask on. I'm like, no, this isn't going to fly. So I immediately went to speak to my captain about it.”
As far as spring break goes, Davis says she consciously avoids it. “I don’t fly to Florida a lot specifically for this reason. I will swap out of a trip that has a Florida overnight, especially during this time of year.”
Nelson confirmed that the federal mask mandate has helped keep some people from becoming completely unruly. “We were very happy to have the pronouncement from the president for a federal mask requirement on all transportation,” she says. “This was backed up by the [Federal Aviation Administration] administrator after the January 6th [insurrection at the Capitol] because we had very serious incidents on a plane a few days leading up to then and the days after, especially to and from the D.C. area. And so the FAA administrator [Steve Dickson] very quickly after that, at our urging, but I need to give him some credit, too, made it very clear that the FAA was putting in place a zero-tolerance policy. So interfering with a crew member or failing to follow crew member instructions can carry a fine of up to $35,000 USD and jail time.”
Flight attendants have already faced a rough year of layoffs, erratic scheduling and pay, and health risks. Now, things are looking up a bit as U.S. Congress has passed $44 billion USD in payroll support for the airline industry since March. The latest, part of Biden’s $1.9 trillion USD stimulus bill, promises an additional $14 billion USD in payroll support until September, which should fund around 60% of payroll costs. And overall, things look more “normal” than at the beginning of the pandemic. Amirzadeh is no longer stripping her clothes off in the garage before coming home to her husband and 14-year-old daughter, nor spraying down her luggage. Davis is no longer meal-prepping all her meals, since airport restaurants have generally opened up. But there’s still a long way to go, and passengers could play a big role in flight attendants' safety, says Amirzadeh.
“Whether or not you believe that masks work or they don't work, whether or not you believe COVID is real or not real, those things don't matter because when you bought your ticket and walked into the airport and boarded the jet bridge, you agreed to all this,” Amirzadeh says. 
“There's a light at the end of the tunnel,” she continues. “You’ve just got to get there, and we're all going to find some sort of ‘new normal,’ and that ‘new normal’ is going to allow me to go back to traveling. It's going to allow me to take my daughter and my husband places and experience new things with them, build memories with them. I would like to think that we're headed for something better. It's where I'm headed, if you want to come with me.” 

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