Insider logo The word "Insider".
Close icon Two crossed lines that form an 'X'. It indicates a way to close an interaction, or dismiss a notification.

6 flight attendants working during the coronavirus pandemic reveal what it's like to fly right now: 'We're kind of being treated like vessels of disease'

flight attendant flight attendant
Flight attendants are on the front lines.
Leon Neal/Getty Images
  • Insider spoke to six flight attendants working for one of the big three airlines in the US right now about what life in the air is like during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Many were worried about their income and feared for their health.
  • They also all said that the job is more isolating than ever.
  • Some compared flying now to the atmosphere after 9/11, but are confident we'll get through this, too.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

The coronavirus has brought the world to its knees, decimating industries from food to retail.

But tourism and transportation are undoubtedly taking some of the biggest hits. 

Flight attendants are on the front lines. Not only are they working in a precarious industry, wondering whether they'll have a job tomorrow, they're also out in the field: traveling while the rest of the world has been asked to stay home, and exposed to hundreds of people daily. 

We spoke to six flight attendants working for one of the US' big three airlines right now about what life in the air is like during the coronavirus pandemic.

All six spoke to Insider on the condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly without fear of losing their jobs. In all of these cases, their identities were verified and made known to Insider.

Some say they're being treated like 'vessels of disease' and that the job is more isolating than ever

flight attendant
The job can get really lonely.
Shutterstock

Working as a flight attendant can be isolating. You're away from home a lot, your schedule is irregular, and you spend much of your free time alone in hotel rooms, sleeping in a different bed every night.

A San Francisco-based flight attendant in her early 30s told Insider that people usually only see the glamorous side of the profession, but says "it can be a very lonely job, and it can be a very stressful job, [...] it can wear you down." 

Many of the flight attendants we spoke to say that with the pandemic, things have gotten worse for them.

"I feel like we're kind of being treated like vessels of disease," said a Seattle-based flight attendant in her mid-30s. "You can feel that people don't want to be near us, especially if we're in uniform. People don't want to get too close to us, passengers during service don't want anything."

A New York-based flight attendant in her 50s who has been in the business for almost three decades echoes those sentiments. 

"I think the mental aspect of it is difficult," she told Insider. "A lot of our friends and family are treating us differently because of our jobs and they don't understand why we keep going to work." 

She adds that there's an "overall sense of unease and tension from passengers and crew" that she didn't observe even a month ago. "It's just a lot more somber now," she said. "It's just an overall different atmosphere."

They're afraid of getting stranded in strange cities

FILE PHOTO: An empty restaurant is seen in Manhattan borough following the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New York City, U.S., March 15, 2020. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon/File Photo
Nonessential businesses all over have been forced to close.
Reuters

With flights being canceled left and right, more and more cities and states enforcing lockdowns, and even air traffic control towers closing, flight attendants are concerned about getting stranded. They also don't know if they can get food and shelter in certain cities, as restaurants and hotels are closing or minimally staffed.

"I just had a layover in Atlanta and there's nothing open," said the Seattle-based flight attendant, who said she started packing cooler bags full of food when she travels. 

"It's tough," she said. "You could get stuck in a city for 30 hours and at the time of lockdown," she lamented. "It's very interesting, people completely underestimate this job."

The San Francisco-based flight attendant echoed this, saying she's been packing extra clothes, books, and snacks, just in case. 

"We have to be prepared to get stuck and have enough food to carry us through a few extra days, because we just don't know what's going to happen. It's a little stressful," she said.

"Things are changing on an hourly basis, and I think that drives a lot of my personal anxiety," she said, adding that she doesn't know if a flight she's scheduled on will be canceled last minute, if she'll be rerouted and end up in a different city, or have work at all.

"You gotta be flexible and you gotta be prepared to deal with it. But I think it's just a lot of rapid change and a lot of unknown. That's something we're used to, but this is on a grander scale than normal," she said.

They fear for their livelihoods and say they are only being offered unpaid leave

flight attendant waiting
They're worried about money.
Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty

"There's not enough flying to go around, so we're being impacted already financially," said the New York-based flight attendant. "We're all worried about the security of our job and getting a paycheck."

All of the flight attendants we spoke to were still working. One said she was "flying as much as humanly possible," right now since she's trying to save as much money as she can, unsure of what her next paycheck will bring.

Many of the flight attendants Insider spoke with complained about how their company is handling the current situation, as they claim they are only being offered unpaid leave in one to three-month batches. None of the flight attendants we spoke to said they chose to accept unpaid leave because they all said they couldn't afford to.

"I can't afford it. I can't afford to just not get paid. Even if I do go on unemployment, I can't afford it," the Seattle-based flight attendant said. "Every day is kind of a sit and wait to see if we lose our job."

A Detroit-based flight attendant said that the unpaid leave situation has her looking for a new job. "Going through turbulent times and only being offered unpaid leave [...] I don't feel supported," she said. 

However, a $2 trillion government stimulus bill passed and was signed into law at the time of writing, which will ensure that aviation workers will still get paid through September, as it will provide airlines with around $60 billion in financial assistance. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act will essentially prohibit airlines from laying off or furloughing employees through September. 

That said, flight attendants might not get paid what they're used to as they may only get paid the minimum number of contractually obligated work hours, depending on demand.

Many fear for their health

flight attendant mask coronavirus pandemic
Flight attendants are exposed to hundreds of people every day.
NurPhoto/Getty

"I don't really understand why we are still flying passengers and putting our flight attendant workforce at risk," another New York-based flight attendant in her 50s with 20 years of work experience said. "I really believe domestic travel should be shut down for a couple of weeks. I understand cargo still needs to get to where it needs to go as well as medical personnel, but I think they could do it without the general public flying too."

"We are constantly exposed but exempt from all CDC guidelines unless we test positive. That makes absolutely no sense," the Detroit-based flight attendant said.

While the CDC states that it works to contact passengers and crew that have been exposed to a sick traveler, some flight attendants we spoke to were skeptical, worrying that their company wasn't doing enough to let them know whether someone on their flight had been exposed or even tested positive.

"I don't know if the company is being as diligent with notifying us if someone on our flight has tested positive. I know they haven't notified us of any flight attendants that have tested positive, but I'd be hard-pressed to believe that nobody's tested positive at the company. I've definitely heard rumors, but the company's not being very transparent," the Seattle-based flight attendant said. 

A New York-based flight attendant admits that she has also not been notified of any cases, but is taking it with a grain of salt: "I don't know what the company's policy on that is. I don't have any idea if that's because they're hiding it or because there haven't been any reports."

The Seattle-based flight attendant says that even if she has exposed or positive passengers on her flights, there's not much she can do.

"The only directive we've really been given is to try to isolate that person as best we can, where they're kind of far away from people," she said, adding that "it's not like we can just quarantine them in the back of the plane and leave them there by themselves."

USA Today reports that 20 airports in the US have implemented temperature checks, but according to CNN, there's not much in the way of evidence that these actually help prevent the spread of COVID-19. It should also be noted that, according to a report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus can be transmitted without any apparent symptoms.

Furthermore, they say they were only recently allowed to wear masks and gloves — and claim that those are not fully provided by the airline

gloves
Many flight attendants now bring their own masks and gloves to work.
Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty

"That's been an issue within the flight attendant community. We feel like [our company] has been very reactive versus proactive," one flight attendant said, citing that they were only allowed to wear masks and gloves during the entirety of a flight as of last week.

"They were kind of late to the game," she said, adding that masks are not provided, and the gloves that are aren't medical-grade (she compares them to "lunch lady gloves"), so she doesn't trust them. 

While she says that her company issued a memo promising to secure nitrile gloves, she says they quickly backtracked, citing an issue with supply and demand. "I think they kind of stopped that initiative," she said, adding that most flight attendants she knows now bring their own gloves and masks.

"We're still in transit so much," the San Francisco-based flight attendant said. "We come into contact with thousands of people probably in one day. It just depends on how many flights you work in a day. And transiting through airports and flights, different airplanes, different crews. And, you know, we just have a lot of exposure, but we don't necessarily have the medical grade type safety precautions." She says her company is doing the best they can to provide masks and gloves, but that they also need to get their hands on them, and that medical professionals may need them more.

While some of the crew members we spoke to felt their company — and they all work for the same one — was reacting too slowly, and prioritizing their business over employees' health, the general consensus seemed to be that it was doing the best it could given the circumstances.

The Association of Flight Attendants, one of the largest flight attendant unions representing approximately 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, is hoping to get more consistent measures across airlines in place to protect flight attendants and slow the spread of the coronavirus.

They are asking airlines to end hot towel service, introduce disposable cups, and provide masks for both passengers and crew.

While many airlines have heeded some of these recommendations — American Airlines cut food and drink services, and Delta, Southwest, and American now allow flight attendants to wear face masks — it is still inconsistent across the board, and many think these changes should have come sooner. 

The Association of Flight Attendants told CNBC: "In general, the industry has far exceeded government instruction, but a coordinated, thorough response from our government is what is needed."

They don't have time to quarantine — and say they're not required to

A passenger wearing a mask as a precaution against a new coronavirus has his temperature checked before boarding a flight to Vladivostok, Russia, at the Pyongyang International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, Monday, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Cha Song Ho)
They're considered "essential critical infrastructure workers."
Associated Press

According to the Department of Homeland Security, air transportation employees are "essential critical infrastructure workers." As such, they're exempt from certain regulations, such as quarantine.

"It's the unfortunate hazard of the job that with all this happening, we can't quarantine, we have to go to work. There are still people flying and we have to be there to operate those flights," the Seattle-based flight attendant said.

Flight attendants told Insider that, to their understanding, they must work unless they have a doctor's note that says they need to quarantine, and only with a doctor's note will they be pay protected. Most of the flight attendants we spoke to agreed that the process was unclear: some believed they had to test positive or show symptoms to get a doctor's note in order to stay home without penalty. One flight attendant added that testing is covered by their company's health insurance, but the only flight attendants she knows that have gotten tested are those exhibiting symptoms. 

While they can choose to accept a one- to three-month unpaid leave, they cannot simply call in sick or choose to not work for a bit without a doctor's note, as sick or personal days are counted as "occurrences against [their] reliability records." 

"I know people that have gotten letters [doctor's notes to say they've been exposed] and they're still flying," the Seattle-based flight attendant said. 

People are still flying — and apparently they're still being gross

bare feet on plane
Some said they were still seeing a lack of hygiene.
Tang Ming Tung / Getty

As flights are consolidating — certain flight routes that had, say, five daily flights might now only have one — some of them still remain pretty full. Flight attendants cited a mix of very empty and very full flights.

One flight attendant specifies that these aren't opportunistic travelers who got a good deal to party in Miami, but people who have had deaths in the family, military personnel, doctors who need to get somewhere they are needed, and stranded travelers coming home. 

"I think that's an important thing to know, because people don't see us as essential workers, but we are," she said. "We're doing it because we want to make sure that people are taken care of."

However, many of the flight attendants we spoke to said they were baffled by the lack of hygiene and common sense many travelers still displayed, citing passengers who removed their masks to cough, or wore masks but still went to the lavatories barefoot, or parents who let their kids put seat belts in their mouths or eat snacks they dumped straight onto tray tables.

Many compared it to 9/11, but are confident we'll get through this too

The New York-based flight attendant said she was working after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, and says the atmosphere today is very similar.

"There aren't as many smiles, a lot more nerves, a lot higher tension. Everybody's sort of wary of each other, just for a different reason now," she said.

She adds that this saddens her, because interacting with people and hearing their stories was her favorite part of the job she's been doing for almost 30 years.

A Salt Lake City-based flight attendant describes herself "as a 'survivor' of 9/11," and also sees parallels between air travel then and now. She adds that "We are one as a people and can use this opportunity to help each other. I want to get you safely to your loved one or your meeting. And I am not afraid. I am ready to serve!"

Loading Something is loading.

Do you have a personal experience with the coronavirus you'd like to share? Or a tip on how your town or community is handling the pandemic? Please email [email protected] and tell us your story.

FOLLOW US: Insider is on Facebook

More: Travel Flight Attendants coronavirus COVID-19
Chevron icon It indicates an expandable section or menu, or sometimes previous / next navigation options.