On March 22nd, 26-year-old flight attendant Ebonie Wells began to show symptoms of coronavirus. “I was in Baltimore and in between walking through the concourses of the airport I was warm,” Wells recounts. By this time, it had been a month since the first case in the U.S. was announced and more than 400 Americans had already died from it, but Wells didn’t want to believe she could have it. Even after she woke up drenched in sweat on the 23rd, she shook it off. After all, her fever was gone by 9 a.m., so she was able to proceed with her 90-minute flight from Baltimore back to her home of Atlanta, the last leg of a three-day shift for a major airline. (Wells declines to disclose which one for fear of retribution.)
During the flight, Wells had some minor throat pain and a mild cough as she wore a self-supplied mask. The flight provided full service to about 20 passengers who were scattered throughout the plane, and Wells was working with a crew of three other people. Two days later, when her symptoms worsened, she provided the names of those crew members to her manager when she had decided to take the leave of absence the company offered in light of the pandemic. “They already know who you’re flying with,” Wells tells me, “but for my own piece of mind and my own due diligence, I wanted to let my manager know who I was flying with so she could pass on the message that they were flying with someone who was symptomatic.”
The responsibility for passing along that message rests in the hands of the airline, as the CDC guidelines for COVID state that “if an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.” While Wells feels that her crewmates were indeed made aware of her illness, she cannot confirm this with them, as that would violate her company’s policy around health and privacy information.
Still, other flight attendants across several airlines say they believe these calls aren’t taking place. In addition to the stressful, hazardous situation of flying during a pandemic, they claim they’re being put at greater risk by their largely silent airlines, which has global implications when you consider the countless number of people and places a flight attendant comes in contact with on a weekly basis.
For Wells, her shift began in Atlanta on March 21st, but her initial flight was cancelled, so she had to “deadhead” — or, fly without working — from Atlanta to Salt Lake City onboard a full flight where numerous people were coughing onboard. The next day, more and more flights were being cancelled, so Wells had to deadhead from Salt Lake City to Detroit and then take another deadhead from Detroit to Baltimore. Of those three deadheads, only the first flight was a full plane, but in addition to her fellow deadheading crewmates, each had some passengers and a different crew.
Again, Wells’ symptoms didn’t present until the evening of March 22nd, which means she likely contracted the virus before that packed flight with coughing people on the 21st. Previous to that litany of deadhead flights, Wells did a fairly normal three-day shift from March 15th to March 17th. She worked on flights from Atlanta to West Palm Beach; West Palm Beach to Atlanta; Atlanta to Tampa; Tampa to LaGuardia; LaGuardia to Salt Lake City; Salt Lake City to Atlanta; Atlanta to New Orleans; and finally from New Orleans back to Atlanta. Each was about half full, Wells tells me. Whether she was carrying COVID-19 at this time is impossible to know, but the virus usually takes anywhere from three to 13 days to become symptomatic. In those two shifts, Wells flew on 12 flights, coming in contact with hundreds — if not thousands — of people, any of whom could have given her the virus or received it from her.
Calling the crewmates of a positive or symptomatic employee isn’t a bad place for an airline to start, though it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of everyone she came in contact with. And there is still a huge question as to whether or not those calls are actually taking place. “I feel like sometimes it’s not being taken as seriously as it should be,” says Donna, a flight attendant who flies for a different airline than Wells and who requested that I not use her real name. “Just recently, we flew with someone who tested positive, and she was the one who put it on Facebook.” Donna says that she next called her supervisor, who didn’t seem too concerned. “They said to self quarantine and monitor yourself,” she tells me, “but nothing was given right off the bat.”
Donna was obviously disturbed that there was no mention of whether or not she should be on her next trip and that there was no offer of help with how she could get tested. “It was more like, ‘Do what’s best for you,’ which was frustrating,” she says. Since then, Donna has been off from work because so many flights have been cancelled (fortunately she hasn’t developed any symptoms). But her airline didn’t enact any official policy; nor did they make any calls to her. The same thing happened to a flight-attendant friend of hers who ended up later testing positive. He didn’t hear from his employer that he’d flown with someone who tested positive; instead, he heard from the COVID-positive co-worker himself.
For Morgan, a pseudonymous flight attendant with a regional carrier, “one thing that really bothers me is where flight attendants, captains or co-pilots were on a trip with someone who tested positive, but then the company didn’t call them until two weeks after they knew.” She says that she knows of three separate cases where someone did get a call about a COVID-positive co-worker, but again, weeks after the initial exposure. During the call, they were told they could quarantine, but that they didn’t have to since they were already past the CDC-recommended 14-day window.
Morgan admits that part of this timing could be due to a delay in test results. She also feels, though, that there is a deliberate effort to wait out the 14 days; that way, if people aren’t symptomatic, they can be asked to immediately return to work. She adds, “One particular captain asked the airline on the phone, ‘Why didn’t you tell me until now?’ and they said, ‘Because we didn’t want to create a panic,’” which is much the same story Mother Jones reported back in April, when it revealed that Delta was discouraging employees to share a positive diagnosis with co-workers or posting about it on social media.
“You may or may not get an email much later saying that you had possibly been exposed to it,” says Frank, another pseudonymous flight attendant at a different regional carrier that’s owned by one of the biggest airlines in the industry. He claims that he has been around co-workers who have had direct contact with COVID-positive employees, yet he hasn’t received a single communication from the airline about them. Mindy, who also works for Frank’s airline (and also a pseudonym), tells me that she got a call from a pilot that she’d flown with nearly two weeks prior, informing her that he had symptoms and that he had received a call from another airline employee who tested positive. Once more, though, none of these communications came from the airline.
They also don’t take into account passengers. While the CDC doesn’t request that businesses contact customers who come in contact with a sick employee, airplane passengers are being put at risk if they fly with a COVID-positive airline employee. This is true even with cutbacks in in-flight service — e.g., limiting it to just a bottle of water or a can of soda. Because “there is no social distancing available on a plane,” Frank explains, which is especially daunting now that there are increasing reports of near-full flights.
Who exactly are these passengers? Morgan says hers seem like essential workers, but Judy, a flight attendant at Donna’s airline (who similarly asked that her real name not be used), isn’t so sure. “I didn’t ask them, but I definitely kept thinking, Why are you guys flying? One lady’s main concern was getting the entertainment app to work for a 50-minute flight. It felt disrespectful to us — people flying for the fun of it.”
Donna relays a similar story, explaining that early on in the pandemic, she had customers doing “mileage runs” where they simply head to a destination and come right back so that they can keep their member status with their airline, though she says that’s stopped since airlines began promising passengers that they’d carry over their status until next year.
A big problem is that there’s no effort for passengers to justify a flight to the airline or anyone else — i.e., anyone can buy a ticket right now, regardless if the travel is essential or not. “There are a lot less flights, but there are no restrictions,” Donna says. “There might be a warning about COVID-19, but you will be able to complete that purchase and go on that flight.”
“The people flying now are the ones who can get $59 tickets who would have probably never gone anywhere normally,” Frank tells me. “They get on the plane without masks, without gloves — the people who want to go lay on the beach in Florida. I’ve literally seen people with golf clubs showing up at the airport.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, Donna says her airline was pushing promotions: “Things like, ‘You can go here for $99.’ I was also looking at flights the other day, and you could fly from Fort Lauderdale to LAX for $15. The taxes were more than the cost of the ticket, and it wasn’t an error or anything like that!”
In terms of screening, she adds, “The only time I saw something domestically being done was on a flight from San Francisco to Dallas.” She explains that everyone on board was given a survey as they entered the plane. It asked their reason for travel, their health in the past few weeks and if they’d been in contact with anyone who was ill. They were expected to hand it over to police once they landed in Dallas, and if they hadn’t completed it, they were made to. But nothing about the paperwork seemed to restrict travel. Instead, Donna describes it as merely a “questionnaire,” because no one was stopped and they didn’t have to hand it in until after the flight ended.
Admittedly, having people justify why they have to fly may exceed the authority of the airline. But what isn’t beyond their capability is making a greater effort to inform their employees (and passengers) about who they’ve been exposed to. Untangling the vast web of people that a flight attendant interacts with would be difficult; however, it’s hardly impossible. After all, the airlines have the personal information for everyone who flies in their planes.
But instead of even trying, the airlines have simply opted out. Frank feels like they’re putting their stock before their employees, and Donna says that “they’re making decisions based on their bottom line.” It seems impossible, though, that they can bury their head in the sand until there’s a vaccine (whenever that might be). Because while Wells may have recovered from her COVID-19 battle, many other airline employees have died from it. And those deaths only promise to continue to mount as the country “opens back up,” summer vacation season really takes hold and more and more people delude themselves that, despite being in the midst of a pandemic, the skies are still clear for takeoff.