Everybody has been affected in some way by the coronavirus pandemic. While the devastating loss of life is, without doubt, the most shocking and unsettling aspect, people are losing jobs as companies are folding and peoples’ lives have been turned upside down.
One of the industries hit the hardest is aviation. While we’re all doing our bit and staying on the ground in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, some planes are still flying to cater for those who must travel. That means that some airline crew from around the world are still working, putting themselves at risk daily to help people get where they need to be.
Requiring face masks, mandatory temperature checks and little-to-no meal service are just some of the drastic steps airlines are taking to limit the spread of the virus. Plus, the measures to limit contact between the crew and passengers on board.
Alex is a senior cabin crew member for British Airways. She agreed to document a recent flight from London to Hong Kong to give a snapshot of what it’s like to fly right now — and potentially for some months to come.
Before leaving home
On the morning of a long-haul trip, even after many years of flying, Alex still wakes up excited about the flight ahead. She checks her online system to find out several factors, like how busy the flight is going to be, how many special meal requirements there are and if there are any passengers who will require special assistance.
These are all things she needs to take into consideration so she can prepare herself adequately for the flight ahead.
Today, it’s very different.
“I know when I check the system and look at the passenger loads, there won’t be many”, Alex said. “I know that the ones that are travelling are doing so for compassionate reasons because someone has either died or is dying.
“I have to put an invisible shield up and listen to what people are going through — as crew, we always do that anyway. But, the difference today is that it’s not just one or two passengers who are travelling for compassionate reasons — it’s most of them”.
Another thing Alex usually looks forward to checking before a flight is what other crew members she’ll be working with. Now, there are more serious issues at the forefront of her mind like the risks imposed by flying during a pandemic.
As part of her final check before she leaves the house, she chooses to pack a filtering facepiece (FFP) mask and a face shield, as BA provides crew with only a paper mask, gloves and hand sanitiser.
Before the flight at Heathrow
Upon arriving at London Heathrow (LHR), the first thing Alex notices is how deserted the staff car park is. There’s no queue for the crew bus to the airport terminal anymore. On board, there’s an eerie silence and the occasional acknowledgement by way of a raised eyebrow. Gone are the days of greeting fellow crew members or friends with a hug or a kiss. Nobody asks where you’re going, Alex says. It’s just quiet.
Inside the terminal, it’s pretty much completely empty.
“The life and soul of the place has disappeared”, Alex said. “There are only a few other crew members to be seen, but they are all just sat alone reading and trying to stay away from each other”.
Flight preparations at Heathrow have also changed for Alex and fellow crew. The typical briefing rooms aren’t suitable given current social distance guidelines, so crew have had to relocate pre-flight briefings.
Boarding and pre-takeoff
Boarding is usually one of the busiest, but also most exciting times for crew. They get to welcome their passengers on board while doing the final preparations before takeoff.
Now, Alex explained, the atmosphere is very different. She said that she can “feel the tension” in the air. On this particular flight, she could sense the stress of fellow crew after seeing passengers wearing full hazmat suits.
“They’re worried they’re not going to be protected enough”, Alex said of her fellow crew members.
If you’ve ever flown out of Heathrow, the safety video and crew demonstration is likely to have finished before you’ve even gotten close to the runway. Alex explained that usually, there is lots of time before takeoff to do the flight safety demonstration and even grab a quick cup of tea before takeoff. Even that has changed now.
These days, Alex is more than likely to be told by the captain that it’s a short taxi to the runway, meaning that crew has barely enough time to get through the demonstration before they have to take their seats for takeoff.
“Once you’ve pushed back, you’re pretty much the only aircraft that is taxiing in the whole of Heathrow”, Alex said.
Before takeoff, Alex has to make a new announcement advising passengers that they must remain in their seats at all times and that they’re only to walk around the cabin if they need to use the loo. Only members of the crew are allowed to pass through the curtains dividing the cabins.
Food and drinks service
This is one of the biggest differences that customers will experience on board BA flights now. No alcohol is served — just hot drinks served in paper cups and soft drinks with no ice served in plastic cups. The restrictions apply no matter the cabin — it’s one size fits all.
The first meal service is like a child’s packed lunch: a bottle of water, a sandwich and some kind of snack. Passengers in premium cabins also get tapas, depending on the route. The second meal service is a warm snack and is the same for all passengers.
Duty-free sales have also been stopped completely but passengers in premium cabins are still given an amenity kit.
During the flight
During a longer-than-usual break on this flight to Hong Kong, Alex took a seat in the World Traveller Plus cabin, which had been sectioned off for crew use only. Some crew no longer want to take their breaks in the designated crew rest area even though fresh linens are provided for each crew member.
Alex says that one of the hardest things to do is to maintain social distancing practices. She finds herself constantly having to remind the crew of this. Even little things like making tea have changed — she advises crew to make their own rather than one person doing a tea round for everyone.
Social distancing measures between crew and passengers must also be in place whenever possible. In normal flying times, when the seatbelt sign comes on, the crew make their way through the cabin and gently wake any passengers whose belts aren’t clearly visible. This is usually done with a gentle shoulder tap with another crew present.
In COVID-19 times, no contact at all is permitted. With gloves and mask on this flight, Alex had to wake a passenger up by gently shaking the back of her chair to ask if she had her seatbelt on.
“It’s really bizarre to what extent the job has changed, even down to the little things”, Alex said.
Alex noted on this flight that passengers’ behaviour is also very different now. When there is interaction, Alex makes sure she is always wearing a mask and gloves, which is equally as uncomfortable for her as it is unnerving for passengers. Nobody wants to talk anymore, she added, and people mostly sleep or just watch films.
In a visit to the cockpit to check if the pilots would like any refreshments on the way to Hong Kong, Alex had a chat about the flight ahead. The captain explained that in addition to the quicker taxi process at LHR, they’re being given permission to switch flight levels straight away — usually, the airways are so busy it’s never as simple as that to manoeuvre around in the sky.
“It’s as if we’re the only people in the airways”, Alex said.
There are also several new forms that Alex has to deal with, including a quarantine form and a health declaration form, which she must hand out to each of the passengers before landing.
It was her first time flying to Hong Kong since everything changed, and in terms of what she had to do when she got there or what the rules and regulations might be, she felt left in the dark by her employer. She thinks it’s probably because everything is changing so much and so quickly that it’s impossible for the airline to keep up — it’s every man for himself, Alex said.
What it was like in Hong Kong
Alex was shocked at how much things have started to go back to normal in Hong Kong. At her hotel, though there’s nobody actually in the pool, there are signs stating that it is open, along with the gym — though with only eight people allowed in at any one time.
When she left the hotel and went for a walk around, she saw people going about their lives pretty much as normal, with the addition of masks. Everyone is wearing face masks.
These are really difficult times for everyone. While the majority of us are staying safe at home, some airline crew like Alex are continuing to fly to keep the world moving, putting themselves at risk. It’s evident that inflight experiences for passengers and the job for crew have changed dramatically and it remains to be seen how soon we might see a possible return to normalcy — if ever.
On top of the stresses of operating flights right now, for many airline employees, there’s the risk of what the future will hold for their jobs.
“The majority of my colleagues have been furloughed”, Alex said. “One of the hardest things we have to deal with right now is that as of 14 June, our jobs could no longer exist”.
While BA has announced that it could make up to 12,000 jobs redundant, elsewhere in the U.K., Virgin Atlantic has said that it’s reducing its workforce by more than 3,000.
Between the unknown future of aviation and air travel and finding a new norm, it’s a challenging time for crew.
“It’s like a completely different world”, Alex said, “and it seems nothing will ever be the same”