The quarantine fatigue is real. Wanderlust, cabin fever and the desire to be anywhere, but home is taking over. Many of my cabin crew friends that are still in the air wish they could be in your shoes. As flight attendants, we are asked to manage panic and create a comfortable and safe environment, regardless of current circumstances. However, this virus has been unlike any other disruption to aviation I’ve ever experienced. Experts are aiming for travel tensions to ease as soon as June 2020, but I strongly disagree. With layoffs on the horizon, here is my perspective on the future of the travel industry while I’m still able to call myself a flight attendant.
- The financial damages will exceed that of 9/11. When terrorists hijacked United Airlines and American Airlines commercial jets in 2001, they killed thousands and injured many more. The effects vibrated beyond New York across the country and especially shook up the travel industry. Many U.S. based airlines took several years to recover normal passenger traffic after near bankruptcy. Airlines, like American, maintained hiring freezes for up to a decade after the attacks. Even with $58B in U.S. government funded COVID-19 relief aid, American Airlines declined to project what their end of the year stock prices would look like for 2020. Delta CEO has said they are bleeding $60M each day as passenger bookings have reached a record low. United Airlines expects to see a loss of at least $1B compared to last year.
- Flight attendants and pilots around the world are dying. In mid-February, my aunt, a healthcare worker in Washington, D.C., sent me an article that made me nervous to fly for the first time in my life. Infographics in the article rendered studies that revealed flight attendants on the plane are the most likely to come in contact with an infected person. Many flight attendants, as of April 3rd, struggled with their airlines to allow them to wear masks and gloves. Now, two months later, there has not only been COVID-19 related deaths at my own airline, but there have been crew deaths at many airlines.
A young U.S. flight attendant with no pre-existing conditions contracted the virus. She described what it was like to fly on empty planes during the weeks after the virus crossed over from international routes into domestic U.S. ones. She tried to be cautious by remaining confined to her hotel rooms on layovers. In the video of her hospitalization, she urges her colleagues to stop flying.
- Social distancing is impossible with the currently cramped seat configurations. Six feet of personal space isnt available at any inch of the aircraft, even in first class. Not even the pilots have six feet between them. The air around an infected person is filtered, but recycled, and can affect up to two rows of people around them. Aviointeriors, a designer and manufacturer of premium aircraft seating for over four decades, has offered a look into the future of what economy class could look like post-pandemic. Immediately, there are some glaring issues. The plexi-glass partition doesn’t solve the problem of sharing recycled air only inches away from your seatmate. The second issue, a big one for flight attendants and the FAA, is how the passenger in the window seat will safely evacuate the plane in an emergency. The plexi-glass also becomes another high-touch surface that will received rushed cleaning between flights.
- The FAA and EASA must create and enforce policies that will protect passengers from communicable diseases. Historically, passing policies can take months. Domestic airlines have decreased their flights by 90% due to record low bookings. Eventually when traffic picks back up, the federal agencies that regulate the skies must be ready with laws that protect not only passengers, but also crew and therefor the countries that we land in. Retraining will also need to take place on a global scale.
- Each country is in a different phase of their journey to the other side of COVID-19. Some nations, similar to the southern parts of the United States, are rushing to reopen. Others, like Sweden, are experimenting with herd immunity. Some countries are still in the height of their COVID-19 experience and have yet to see their curve flatten. Travel bans will likely become political, banning certain countries because of xenophobia or its foreign policies. The U.S. President vs. the Governors of the U.S. have shown how health-focused and science-based decision-making can be controversial to economic stimulation. Conflicting messages and this winter’s flu season all but guarantees the U.S. will see a second wave of the coronavirus. Poorer nations may see second waves of the virus as tourism picks up, being that its such an essential income for places like Italy, Jamaica or Thailand.
- There are so many unknowns and no vaccine for at least 12 months. With plenty of blame and criticism to go around, there was a lot of time lost for research and development of an approved vaccination. No two scientists or governors have agreed on a timeline of when we will fully lift the stay-at-home orders and return to work. If we continue to see protests against social distancing, we will continue our indoor existence through the summer.
There are domestic attendants, my friends included, still in the air around the world. Luckily, the Dreamliners I rode to Europe every week were grounded in mid-March due to the WHO upgrading the crisis to a Pandemic.
I was saved the trouble of choosing a paycheck over my safety.There have been numerous scenarios when I felt like a body at work and not a valued crew member; or a number on payroll rather than an asset. The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought many of those experiences flooding back to mind. It seems to outperform each memory in its own way. Though I thoroughly enjoyed my freedom to roam this globe as a flight attendant, I acknowledge how volatile the aviation industry can be especially during times of uncertainty. Whether I never wear my wings again, I’m prepared to let go and move on to traveling in other ways until air travel is safer.
Looking ahead should include a plan for airlines to have a year’s cash on hand for operations and salaries to continue through crises . The interiors and seat configurations of aircrafts are the easiest to replace. They need to accommodate less passengers onboard with more space between the edges of the seats. Airlines should get creative with how they sell seats since many business travelers may opt for Zoom meetings going forward. Anyone interested in subscription fee based flying?? Sound off in the comments.
At airports, they should reopen medical facilities and restructure the Immigration process to screen international flights either via thermal cameras or otherwise. Airports should coordinate with Air Traffic Control to space out scheduled flights so that only a maximum number of people can be in each airport terminal at any given time. Boarding should be streamlined and begin from the back to the front, from the window to the aisle. No more climbing over your neighbors. Flights should be stocked with over-the-counter remedies such as cough drops or decongestants. It could help prevent aerosols or droplets spreading from infected persons. Lastly, flight attendants and pilots should be recognized as front-line first responders and given access to sufficient protective equipment onboard. There should be enough that we can share with passengers that also need it.
In my short career of flying, I’ve flown through the Caribbean at the height of Zika virus, experienced the panicked evacuation of Miami International Airport during Hurricane Maria, been delayed due to my fair share of Parisian unrest, saw my peers among the 737-MAX fatalities and eased frustrated passengers over long lines during 2019’s government shutdown. From what I’ve seen, the airline industry is resilient. People in recent decades have intertwined their lives with travel as economies have globalized. With each comeback from disruption, the travel industry shows that airlines can and will return to their full capacity. However, with so many variables, its hard to believe it’ll be anytime this year.
As always, thanks for joining me.
*Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are my own. My personal opinions are not reflective of the opinions of the airlines I’ve flown for. The information gathered to support my arguments are not reflective of internal airline documents and can be found online via the various sources linked.