The Impact Of the Pandemic on Travel: A Flight Attendant’s Point of View
It’s no surprise that COVID-19 has affected the travel industry. We’ve all seen the dire predictions, flights grounded, airlines scrambling to refund tickets, cancelled hotel reservations and billions of dollars lost. Some of us work in the industry and have been personally affected when travel was forced to come to a dead halt in 2020. Suddenly, we were all confined to our homes and encouraged to limit our movement unless absolutely essential. As we were handling the new restrictions, climbing numbers of infections, toilet paper shortages and what 6’ really looked like, the hotel and travel industry seemed to all but disappear overnight. To give some context of exactly how disastrous COVID-19 has been for the travel industry as a whole, here are some figures to paint the picture:
- According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the travel industry employs around 1 in 10, or 10% of the global workforce.
- In 2019, just one year before the pandemic, travel and tourism accounted for 8.9 trillion of the global GDP. In the first 10 months of the pandemic, the industry lost $935 billion. (Forbes)
- Hotel occupancy dropped 33% from 2019, holding an average of 44% occupancy. (US Travel)
- An estimated 100 million people employed in the travel industry lost their jobs in 2020. The Asia Pacific region suffered the biggest blow, with nearly 64 million losing employment. (Statista)
To get a better idea of just how difficult it’s been to be part of the 10% of the global workforce dependent on travel to earn a living, we spoke with a flight attendant (let’s call her ‘Suzie’) who works for a major airline based in the U.S. A transcript of that interview can be found below:
The Shock to the Airline Industry
Beginning of transcript
NFA: “Were airline workers immediately afraid for their jobs?”
Suzie: “You know, at first I thought that this was going to be something that mostly affected older fliers. I remember talking to other flight attendants saying it ‘was no big deal’ and that all of the hype would die down in a few weeks. Once March came around things completely changed. March 16th, 2020 was my last flight. A plane that would normally be full with 230 people had less than 50. That’s when the fear started to set in. I was fearful for my job, but above all my health. I kind of felt like — what about us, you know? It was obvious then that everything was about to change”.
NFA: What feelings did you have, what resources were you given for health and job security?
Suzie: “Once the gravity of what was happening set in, I just felt fear. Something people don’t always know about the airline industry is just how disposable flight attendants are. We’re easily replaceable in normal times and with the added uncertainty of a global pandemic we felt that much more insecurity about keeping our jobs.”
NFA: “So even in normal times it sounds like job security is a major issue of concern for flight attendants in particular?”
Suzie: “Absolutely. Pilots have more security of course; but for those of us who work hand-in-hand with travelers everyday the prospect of losing our jobs was an added stress. That goes for more than just flight attendants too. Think about your gate staff, ground crew, baggage checkers, we were all in the same boat.”
NFA: “How about from a health perspective, do you feel like your health was prioritized by your airline?”
Suzie: “Well initially, masks weren’t required for a long time. That was super concerning. I was one of the few fortunate flight attendants who worked for an airline that offered paid leave and pay protection for employees whose trips were cancelled. They allowed us to cut our hours or stop flying entirely with the guarantee that there would be no repercussions on our employment. So many others weren't that lucky though. A few months later and the majority of airlines were furloughing employees to cut costs. It’s terrible because this is a multi-billion dollar industry and in many cases I think more could have been done to keep employees on and paid. But when you’re working in the travel industry it’s so easy to see how profit is often placed above the person.”NFA: “I’m glad that your airline allowed employees options that made them feel safe. Did you end up dropping hours?”
Suzie: “I didn’t really have a choice at first. So many flights were getting cancelled that my hours ended up being cut in half. We were really given no choice but to accept a pay cut. I mean, I was happy to still be employed but the bills don’t stop you know. There was a chunk of time last year where I was living paycheck to paycheck. Luckily after some time we were offered paid leave which I accepted because it’s what made me feel safe at the time. So essentially we had to choose between stacking as many hours as we could and risking our health, or prioritizing our safety. So many flight attendants didn’t really have any option but to keep working.”
The Travel Industry Now
NFA: “So turning to the present day, where do you think the travel industry is now?”
Suzie: “It’s exactly a year’s difference now. Flying is definitely picking up again. My recent trips have all been full planes. I think I started to notice the change around January as vaccines began rolling out. But also, I think people are just over it and looking to travel again. That can be kind of scary and I hope that people are still taking this whole thing seriously. It just seems like so many have this false sense of security that ends up putting us all at risk.”
NFA: “By ‘false sense of security’ do you mean that people are being more reckless when it comes to following the protocols put in place?”
Suzie: “Well most passengers are wearing their masks without issue but we still have cases where people either refuse to comply or wear the mask properly. I mean, It’s federally mandated that you have to wear a mask on the aircraft. You agree to it when you purchase your ticket. If a flight attendant is asking you to wear your mask it’s for your own safety too. We’re just doing our jobs. There’s a real fear of harassment too. We’ve had passengers get aggressive with us for asking them to wear a mask. Also, when it comes to cleaning the planes between trips I would say that not much has changed since before the pandemic. Airlines are using different verbiage to do the same things they’ve always done.”
NFA: “In other words, they’re not necessarily cleaning the planes as advertised?”
Suzie: “Yeah. For some airlines that only happens every few trips. I’m constantly worried about what I may bring home to my family. It’s less about enjoying the job now and more about concern for my safety.”
Looking to the Future
NFA: “So looking at the rest of 2021, how do you think the travel industry will fare?”
Suzie: “I definitely think we’re going to see a huge resurgence of travel. It’s a good thing for sure and I do think conditions are getting safer. I just hope people continue to follow the protocol put in place for them.”
Advice for travelers
NFA: “Definitely. If you could say one thing to our readers, from the perspective of someone whose livelihood depends on the travel industry, what would you say?”
Suzie: “We’re excited to see flying pick back up and passengers back on our planes, but the hardest thing about the job right now is getting fliers to wear masks. While we’re on the job we have to do the job, part of that is enforcing the federal mandate of mask wearing. It makes us feel safer if you’re wearing your mask. Even if you don’t agree with it we’re just trying to keep you safe and do our jobs. We’re people too. We see hundreds of faces everyday. Sometimes it feels like the average flier doesn’t always see the humanity behind us.”
End of Transcript
Essential workers like Suzie who are employed in the travel industry don’t have the option to stay home and shield themselves from this virus like so many of us have been privileged enough to. Trust me, we at NFA are dying to add some stamps to our passports. We’re even living vicariously through those of you who are doing so now. We only ask that when you pack up your suitcase again, or as you continue along on your current adventure, you consider people like Suzie. They’re the frontline workers who are anxiously awaiting to welcome you back again. And when they do, please be mindful of their safety. Let’s help the industry come back to life, and let’s respect the health of those who make traveling possible.