A 25-year industry veteran wrote of an incident in which a man refused to ride an elevator with her.
“I feel like a leper now, like people look at us like the nastiest things that walk the earth while other ESSENTIAL EMPLOYEES get praise (which is VERY MUCH DESERVED!) I’m Not feeling so great today emotionally and not feeling ver proud to be a Flight Attendant. I think a break from flying may be an option I probably should take.”
From Jacksonville to Boston to Denver to Los Angeles, flight attendants say they are increasingly fearful and anxious. They have watched as the number of coronavirus cases has skyrocketed, first overseas and now in the United States, which last month reached the grim milestone of having the most confirmed cases in the world.
And now with news that one of their own — an American Airlines flight attendant based in Philadelphia — died of covid-19 last month, that fear has deepened.
Paul Frishkorn, 65, who according to news reports died March 23, had been a flight attendant since 1997, starting his career with US Airways.
Lori Bassani, past president of the Association for Professional Flight Attendants, which represents those who fly for American Airlines, called Frishkorn a “tireless advocate for the flight attendant corps.”
On Monday, Transport Workers Union announced the death of a second flight attendant from covid-19. He was Ralph Gismondi, 68, a JetBlue flight attendant based at John F. Kennedy International Airport who had been with the airline for more than a decade. No other details were immediately available.
A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health declined to provide details about Frishkorn’s case, saying the agency does not comment on individual cases.
“Paul’s death sheds a solemn light on our profession as front-line workers,” Bassani said, noting that in the weeks before his death, Frishkorn had spent time in the crew room at Philadelphia International Airport answering others’ questions about the virus.
“It underlines the risk to our members who continue to work as essential workers in the airlines,” Bassani said, adding that it is a reminder that during this difficult time, “no precaution is too much to take.”
Airlines have drastically reduced service due to the pandemic. Southwest announced it would fly 2,000 fewer flights this month, roughly a 40 percent decrease. United has cut its overall schedule by 60 percent, with many flights carrying only a few passengers. After a crush of travelers rushing to return home from overseas and around the country, many airports have become ghost towns. In some cases, flights are operating at only 10 to 20 percent full. That leaves some wondering why airlines are flying at all.
“Very clearly if you look at the maps, it’s spread through air travel and that’s one thing they’re not stopping and until they do, they’re going to continue spreading [the coronavirus] around the country,” said a New York-based flight attendant.
She, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared retribution from her employer.
It is not clear how many flight attendants have been infected. Airlines declined to release numbers. However, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents those who fly for United, Alaska, Spirit and other airlines, said more than 150 members have reported testing positive for covid-19 and an estimated 300 suspect they have contracted the virus.
Separately, officials at the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents those who fly for American Airlines, said at least 100 flight attendants have tested positive.
But the industry has adamantly opposed any shutdown of domestic traffic, saying that service needs to be available for medical professionals and first responders.
“Our elected officials want us to continue to provide safe air travel through this crisis,” American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker said in a video message to employees. “And they want us to be up and flying when demand for travel picks up again. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Meantime, many flight attendants remain torn. One flight attendant shared a Facebook post that he said summed up where many of them are today.
“Some of us are stuck between being thankful we still have jobs to go to and terrified we still have jobs to go to.”
'Spreading like wildfire'
The very nature of flight attendants’ jobs puts them in constant contact with members of the public. In ordinary times, they enjoy these interactions. But it also makes the social distancing recommended by health officials nearly impossible, and they worry that even the briefest of exchanges put everyone at risk.
“I can tell you this is the first time after 9/11 that I’m scared,” said the veteran New York-based flight attendant. “It’s comparable to that.”
The fear is also mixed with guilt. Some worry they could have the virus and not know it. In Facebook posts, they tell stories of trying to get tested but being turned away because they weren’t in a high-risk group or didn’t show symptoms.
“Just statistically speaking there’s bound to be people, flight attendants, pilots and passengers who have it but are asymptomatic,” said an Oakland-based flight attendant, who is still working.
He feels fine now, but he knows that if he continues to fly, he risks contracting the virus.
“It’s spreading like wildfire at this point,” he added. “It’s unrealistic to think that flight attendants, pilots and passengers don’t have it. Somebody has it on somebody’s plane.”
In a video shared by one of her friends with The Washington Post, another flight attendant had a blunt message for her colleagues: Stop flying.
From her hospital bed, she recounted how she worked a nearly two-week stretch last month and felt fine. But on her day off, she began feeling congested. She thought it was allergies. Now she’s hospitalized with covid-19.
“I’m asking all of my flight attendant friends to stop flying,” she said. “It’s not worth it. Forget your mortgage. Forget your bills. Stay home.”
Some flight attendants have stopped going home between trips, worried that they might infect their families. Others are meticulous about changing out of their work clothes before going into their houses and bathing before even getting near their loved ones.
“All of us on the front lines — we are scared,” said a Boston-based flight attendant who has flown for 26 years. “We have families. I am scared — scared I’m going to bring it home.”
They say the airlines have been slow to respond when they’ve raised concerns.
Take masks. It was only recently that most carriers allowed flight attendants, not just those flying internationally, to wear masks during flights.
Airlines said they are deeply concerned about the health and safety of their crew members and passengers and are using guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization to set policy. The recommendations however are constantly being revised as health officials learn more about the virus and how it spreads. That has sometimes put carriers in conflict with their crew members.
Take the issue of masks.
Flight attendants pushed for several weeks to be allowed to wear masks while on board, but airlines initially rebuffed those requests, noting that the CDC had recommended only certain people, such as health-care professionals, needed to wear them. In late March, however, most major carriers relented.
“Southwest recognizes and empathizes with the level of unease among some of our Flight Attendants, and their safety and peace of mind are important to us,” the airline said in a statement outlining its decision.
Just over a week later, the CDC changed its recommendation, saying that all individuals should consider wearing masks in public to help stem the spread of the virus.
Airlines said they are taking other steps to protect passengers and crew members. Delta Air Lines began putting special kits on international and now some domestic flights that include masks, wipes, hand sanitizer and thicker gloves. Other carriers are providing gloves, soap and hand sanitizer — though they acknowledge that those items are in short supply. All say they have stepped up cleaning of their aircraft. Even so, some flight attendants say thorough cleanings aren’t always done.
Airlines said they also have taken steps to reduce interaction between passengers and crew members.
Southwest eliminated all snack and beverage service on its flights, though passengers can request cans of water. American did the same on short-haul flights, though it still offers meals on longer flights.
And they maintain they have made changes to facilitate social distancing on flights.
JetBlue and American now block off two rows of seats near where crew members sit, and seating assignments are made with the goal of maximizing distance between passengers. American Airlines is leaving half the middle seats empty on most flights.
Even with the changes, just the prospect of flying still puts many flight attendants on edge.
“When I’m not working, I can manage it,” said a Jacksonville-based flight attendant. “But when I’m going to work, I get super anxious.”
Adding to the anxiety, flight attendants may not know they are flying with someone who is sick or have flown with someone who later became sick. Airlines are not required to report when a crew member or passenger contracts the novel coronavirus. That responsibility falls to state or local health officials, who follow guidelines from the CDC recommending who should be notified and what steps should be taken to protect others who may have been exposed.
Some say they feel like they inhabit parallel universes: At home in New York City, one flight attendant said she follows strict rules that have been imposed on residents. She never leaves the house and doesn’t interact with anyone outside her immediate family.
But her work life is the opposite: hours spent confined in an enclosed space with strangers.
“I’m trying to do all the things I’m supposed to,” she said. “I live in New York City, so I don’t go out — except to go to work because I don’t have a choice.”
Passengers have changed their habits as well, some said.
Another New York-based flight attendant said she worked on three flights to Europe before restrictions imposed by the Trump administration led to mass cancellations. On the first two, both to London, she watched as one or two passengers wiped down their seats. By the time she left Barcelona, “everyone was doing it.”
She, too, became more cautious: After landing in Barcelona, she headed straight to the hotel and didn’t leave until it was time to fly home.
Time off is unaffordable
Airlines do say they have changed policies so that flight attendants don’t feel pressured to work if they are sick — something that unions have pushed them to do.
Some airlines like JetBlue are offering additional paid time off for those with confirmed cases of covid-19. The airline is offering flight attendants the ability to take paid time off in advance if they haven’t banked enough, but that time will have to be made up in the future.
Southwest instituted an emergency time-off program that allows flight attendants to take May or June, or May and June off at half pay with full medical benefits. Others like American are offering extended leaves with medical benefits.
Still, many flight attendants say they aren’t sure they can afford to take time off. One New York-based flight attendant said she’s worried if she takes time off, she’ll have to pay more for company-provided health benefits that cover her and her family.
The Oakland-based flight attendant said even with full medical benefits, he can’t afford his company’s offer of time off if he’s receiving only half his salary.
The reality is that as long as the airlines are flying, flight attendants and others must work.
In an internal memo to staff, Ed Baklor, vice president of flight services at JetBlue, acknowledged that these are difficult times.
“Your notes express the gamut of emotions we’re all feeling — everything from well-wishes, frustration, gratitude, anxiety and uncertainty,” he wrote. “Many of the questions you’ve asked are the big ones Is it safe for me to do my job? Why are we still flying? These questions are complex and none of them have perfect answers.”
“However with the critical nature of our work comes inherent responsibilities and yes, risks. JetBlue must continue to fly because our industry has been included in the government’s list of critical businesses needed to operate during these extraordinary times.”
The New York-based flight attendant called the pandemic her worst fear come true.
“I don’t want my job to be done, but on the other hand, I don’t want to die from this either.”
Added the Jacksonville flight attendant: “Honestly, I don’t know what the right answer is. Should I fly? Should I not fly? I still don’t know.”
Still every so often, in the Facebook group where flight attendants share their fears and anxieties, there is a bit of good news.
Three days after the pregnant flight attendant first shared her worries, the 27-year-old posted an update.
“Hello group! I want to take a moment to say thank you for the amazing support i [got] from every one of you. This is the first time I realized the amazing family we are in this industry. My results came back today NEGATIVE thanks God.”