“It feels post-apocalyptic”: What it’s like to be a flight attendant during coronavirus
As a flight attendant, I see weird things all the time. But the response to the coronavirus has been way beyond weird. The first time I noticed that it was affecting people’s behaviour was in February, when I was boarding a flight from L.A. to Toronto. One woman had a late connection and was running to catch the flight. She made it, but she was the last person down the aisle, huffing and puffing, unable to catch her breath. Someone from the other side of the plane screamed, “She’s got the virus!” Everyone freaked out, and the women almost got into a fistfight. As we were closing the aircraft door, six passengers stood up because they weren’t comfortable flying next to the woman. They wanted her to be deplaned. We had to delay the flight and pull the passenger aside to do an assessment—mostly to find out if she had been to Wuhan—before we could close the door and leave.
After that I began noticing a lot of micro-aggressions: people would physically turn away from anyone of Asian descent, sitting with their backs to them when they’re side by side in the seats. I heard quite a few racist comments: white people joking that they didn’t want to be seated next to Chinese passengers, or calling it a “Chinese disease.”
Now, medical-grade masks are sold out everywhere, so people are getting creative with their hazmat gear. On one flight, an entire family—parents, grandparents and kids—all sat together in a row of eight wearing clear raincoats with full face coverings attached to the ponchos. They looked like robots. I’ve seen all sorts of other makeshift masks, too. There are the carbon-filter masks graffiti artists wear to keep out dust particles, and I’ve seen some old-looking steampunk masks with goggles and ventilators. They clearly don’t work, because the plastic is cracking and leather can’t be sanitized, but people are wearing them. It’s really dramatic. It feels post-apocalyptic.
You’re only supposed to wear a mask if you yourself have the virus. But anyone wearing a carbon filter mask clearly isn’t sick and just looking to protect themselves. Honestly, I get it. I wear non-prescription glasses on flights because people spit when they talk, and I don’t want to be hit in the face. I feel a lot safer when something is physically protecting me from other people’s droplets.
When I first started flying, we weren’t allowed to wear gloves to pick up garbage. And even during SARS and the swine flu, flight attendants weren’t allowed to wear masks. It was an optics issue: they didn’t want passenger to think anything was wrong, and if we were wearing masks, passengers would also want them. I would always bring my own gloves, and people would call me a rebel. Now, finally, we’re allowed to make our own judgment calls on whether we want to wear gloves or masks to work. It’s a good thing, because the plane can be a filthy place. We’re so busy that we’re sometimes serving people food at the same time as we’re picking up garbage. We’re not supposed to do that, but we often have to because we’re serving hundreds of people at once. People put their pens and credit cards in their mouths then hand them to us. Even a person who takes out their ear buds before handing me garbage or a newspaper could be a source of transmission.
The teams who clean the planes are called groomers, and we’re still using the same team. They’re part of a union, so it’s hard to change companies. They’re meant to clean the tray tables between every flight, but I haven’t seen that happen. I even heard someone ask if they should clean all the tray tables, and their colleague responded, “No, there’s no time.”
Flight attendants are exposed to hundreds of travellers every day, so we need a lot more flexibility for those of us who want to self-isolate. Right now, there’s no option other than using sick days. I always feel pressured to go to work, even if I’m sick, because we can’t take a sick day without a doctor’s note. If we suspect we’re sick, we should be able to stay home without any repercussions. We’d give up our hours and our pay, but we shouldn’t have to use up our sick days.
I’ve been feeling exhausted for several weeks. The symptoms of a cold and Covid-19 are quite similar, so maybe I’m just being paranoid, but I’ve been working pretty often. The last thing I want to do is give the virus to other people. I haven’t been tested for it because my friends who are epidemiologists say it’s just better to self-isolate.
—As told to Isabel B. Slone