The coronavirus left no stone unturned in its wake. Restaurants, retailers, schools, places of worship, movie theaters, and so many other staples of American life suddenly became inaccessible amid strict shutdown and quarantine measures. Airlines also took a major blow as travelers were suddenly forced to stay home.
According to Paul Hartshorn, a flight attendant for American Airlines and national communications chairman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, “Speaking for my airline, I believe we’re down almost 90 percent year over year from May… something for which we have no playbook.”
Air travel is expected to recover gradually as states across the nation end their lockdowns and ease social distancing restrictions, but airlines can hardly return to the old status quo. Now flight attendants find themselves on the frontlines of sweeping changes implemented by airlines to keep passengers and aviation workers safe.
The Fight For Masks
The airline industry has almost unanimously agreed that all employees and travelers must wear masks at all times. As Hartshorn explains, some like American Airlines initially required only flight attendants to wear masks.
“We thought that did not make any sense because if I’m wearing a mask as a flight attendant and many passengers are not, I’m protecting you- to the point that I can- but we have no protection.” So Hartshorn and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants advocated to Congress and labor unions for widespread use of masks.
On May 11, it officially became a requirement for passengers to wear a face covering in the airport and during travel. “That was a great victory,” Hartshorn shared. “That’s our singular focus, protecting our crews and, of course, our passengers. We want them to feel safe and we want them to return when they feel safe.”
Flight Attendants Strive to Ease Passenger Fears
Social distancing is difficult, if not nearly impossible, on board an aircraft. Even at 50% capacity, all passengers are confined to a “small metal tube” for multiple hours. The consolidation of flights is making this even worse. Airlines have no choice but to limit the number of daily flights and routes, which in turn creates jam-packed flights.
Hartshorn has experienced “stress and consternation” from passengers on flights where social distancing isn’t possible. “Flight attendants are doing their best to honor whatever they can at this moment to allow as much distancing between passengers as possible,” he said. But as flights fill up, passengers must sit close together, “and I think that’s what flight attendants and passengers are struggling with. It’s very difficult. There’s a palpable fear out there.”
In an effort to minimize interactions, flight attendants have cut most in-flight services. They stay out of the aisles as much as possible. Service items, such as pretzels or water, are distributed as passengers board in order to offer perks of comfort without compromising safety.
Hartshorn predicts these changes won’t disappear anytime soon. “It has definitely changed the way that we look at this job,” he shared. “I think it’s definitely going to change the airline industry for years to come.”