- ‘It’s definitely not easy.’ How flight attendants are handling travel during COVID-19
- Planes are relatively safe, but not risk free
- Policing masks—the toughest part of the job
- Lingering concerns
- Why some snowbirds are flying south despite the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions
- Warm climates, cold shoulders
- Careful decision-making
‘It’s definitely not easy.’ How flight attendants are handling travel during COVID-19
When Amber Gibson last flew from Chicago to Denver, she sat next to a passenger who was wearing a mask over his mouth but not his nose. Despite repeated requests from her and flight attendants, he refused to adjust his face covering. Since the flight was already delayed, Gibson agreed to move to a new seat after takeoff, only to be surrounded by more halfhearted maskers.
“Instead of forcing [my seatmate] off the plane, [the crew] made me feel the bad guy because we had already pushed back from the gate,” says Gibson, a Chicago-based travel journalist. “Crew told me that if I insisted, we could go back, but it would further our delay, and did I want to waste everyone’s time?”
Gibson’s dilemma highlights one of many difficulties of traveling by air during a pandemic.
Those who must fly have to untangle each airline’s safety protocols and worry about unpredictable fellow passengers, as well as the extent to which crew will deal with them.
The issues are even more fraught for flight attendants, who must navigate a virus that still isn’t completely understood and non-compliant passengers who put crew members’ health—and jobs—at risk every day.
A World Economic Forum/Visual Capitalist report finds that transportation workers have the highest COVID-19 risk score—75.7 an average 30.2—of 966 non-health jobs assessed. Flight attendants are more at risk from COVID-19 than anyone else on a plane, just by the nature of their work.
Close quarters mean they come within six feet of every passenger and each other multiple times during a flight. Flight attendants are vulnerable to contracting the virus when passengers remove their masks to eat or drink and when trying to convince an anti-masker to comply with rules.
Federal protections for crew members are limited, and each airline has its own set of policies.
President Biden’s new federal mask mandate requiring face coverings in federal transportation areas, including in airports and on planes, may give more weight to the varied COVID-19 protection measures across the United States. But it’s not clear when the new mandate will go into effect or how it will be enforced.
In the meantime, cabin crew are still left with open-to-interpretation guidelines that vary from airline to airline—and few consequences for passengers who defy them.
Besides that, other COVID-related workplace concerns remain, such as inconsistent policies on contact tracing, testing, and quarantine, plus potentially punitive consequences for crew members who miss shifts to isolate after exposure to the virus.
Planes are relatively safe, but not risk free
Research has established that the air on planes is cleaner than that of almost all other indoor spaces, thanks to sophisticated air circulation systems and HEPA filters.
In addition, electrostatic fog sanitizing, airline mask rules, and procedural changes to reduce touchpoints have all helped crew members, such as Roshonda Payne, feel safer.
“I think just learning more about all the products, processes, and systems has helped me build confidence and that of my customers,” says the Los Angeles-based flight attendant for the hop-on jet service JSX.
(Planes and airports are going high-tech to make travel safer during the pandemic.)
Still, planes aren’t completely safe. Late last year, researchers determined that four people ly caught COVID-19 on an 18-hour flight from Dubai to Auckland in September. Two of the four did not wear masks during the flight, which was only a quarter filled.
Requirements to provide a negative COVID-19 test before boarding, such as the new rule for flying into the U.S., don’t eliminate the risk. In January, people flying to the February 2021 Australian Open tennis tournament on chartered flights had to provide a negative test. Yet upon arrival, at least five people from three different flights tested positive.
Other flight attendants relay stories of passengers taking advantage of the mask exception for eating and drinking. Some passengers spent entire flights sipping from almost-empty cups or nibbling snacks when cabin crew were near.
Compounding the uncertainty are several new, more contagious strains of the virus and news from Europe that cloth masks aren’t adequate protection.
Austria, France, and Germany now require medical-grade masks on public transportation.
While vaccines rolling out are a cause for hope, we don’t yet know if they prevent disease transmission and, so far, only a small percentage of the global population has been vaccinated.
Policing masks—the toughest part of the job
Despite the uncertainties, scientists say that masks are still the best protection against the virus. Yet, in the air, flight attendants have a tough time dealing with passengers who refuse to comply with mask rules. One flight attendant, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, says some rule-breakers claim discrimination or mock and dispute crew’s authority.
Other flight attendants relay stories of passengers taking advantage of the mask exception for eating and drinking. These passengers, one source says, spent the entire flight sipping from almost-empty glasses or slowly nibbling snacks when cabin crew were near.
“It’s definitely not easy to be repeatedly challenged” about mask wearing, says Payne. She encounters reluctant maskers several times per week on JSX’s 30-seat planes, which fly between private terminals. “I get that some [people] don’t wearing them. I don’t it either,” she notes, “but it’s vitally important to keeping everyone safe and protected.”
“Ideally, everyone should want to wear a mask for the sake of others, if not for their own well-being,” says Sharona Hoffman, a professor and co-director of Case Western Reserve University’s Law-Medicine Center.
She explains that airlines have ways to compel people to comply, including removing passengers who refuse to mask up while the plane is still at the gate and placing rule flaunters on a no-fly list. In 2020, U.S.
airlines banned more than 1,400 travelers for mask infractions.
(Here’s how to limit your COVID-19 risk while traveling.)
Still, flight attendants have limited authority to enforce the rules and struggle with inconsistent direction from higher-ups. Some are instructed to do no more than provide reminders to passengers about masking up. Yet they say management is quick to pass on complaints from passengers who accuse crew of not doing enough.
The airline industry is hopeful that President Biden’s mask executive order will help minimize onboard tussles.
“Now that the executive action mask mandate goes beyond the airline policy, we know this will provide the backup flight attendants and aviation workers on the front lines have needed since the beginning of this pandemic,” says Taylor Garland, spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union, which represents crew at 17 airlines.
Biden’s mandate may boost the Federal Aviation Administration’s January 13, 2021 order.
That order stepped up enforcement against bad passenger behavior, including disruptive anti-maskers, in the wake of incidents on flights surrounding the January 6, 2021 siege of the U.S. Capitol.
Now passengers who “assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere” with airline crew members are much more ly to face fines up to $35,000 or imprisonment.
But the mandate’s lack of enforcement leaves things a little up in the air. “Local and state mandates have certainly helped us enforce the mask rule,” says Payne, “but it remains to be seen what impact the national mandate will have on our flights.”
Even if it were enforceable, the mask mandate doesn’t address the other key concern for flight attendants: the lack of national crew contact tracing, testing, and quarantine standards that airlines must follow. This applies to crew members who are worried they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 and want to be tested, those waiting for test results, and those who test positive. It should be a concern for passengers, too.
These unmanipulated images from Kost’s window seat help change perspectives and encourage travelers to leave the shades open. In this photo, microorganisms brighten up the San Francisco Bay salt ponds with vibrant colors.
San Francisco Bay, California
These unmanipulated images from Kost’s window seat help change perspectives and encourage travelers to leave the shades open. In this photo, microorganisms brighten up the San Francisco Bay salt ponds with vibrant colors.Photograph by Julieanne Kost
One flight attendant, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their job, says that federal guidelines leave too much to airline discretion. They said that current guidelines allow airlines to create policies—such as COVID-19 exposure notifications—that favor keeping flight attendants on the job over keeping employees and passengers safe.
Another flight attendant pointed to their airline’s policy to send email notifications about positive tests as an example. This policy doesn’t ensure that all staff receive it before their shifts. As a result, a flight attendant learned from fellow workers—not from management—that two colleagues they recently flew with tested positive.
American Airlines’ policy is to remove from service all crew who worked with an infected person. But several airlines broadly interpret FAA and CDC guidelines, which unrealistically define “close contact,” given how flight attendants work in tight spaces.
Testing is mandatory only under specific circumstances; otherwise crew are instructed to continue working and monitor for symptoms. That’s risky when studies show that 59 percent of COVID-19 cases are transmitted by asymptomatic or presymptomatic people.
Testing overall is problematic due to each airlines’ differing policies. Some airlines provide at-home tests if employees have been exposed, but only if they have symptoms.
At some airlines, those who want more conclusive PCR tests must pay for it themselves and take it on their own time, even if they’ve received an at-work exposure notification.
Regardless, one test does not mean a person is COVID-free, especially shortly after exposure.
(How good is COVID-19 testing in the U.S. right now?)
Missing work due to exposure to coronavirus can be stressful, too. One person, who also didn’t want to be identified, says that some crew members are afraid to miss work if they’re sick or believe they’ve contracted the virus, even when that exposure was on the job. They say that pay protection applies only if their test is positive.
Aircrew unions continue their calls for greater consistency in safety protocols and a “proactive and fulsome federal response to COVID in aviation and beyond,” says the AFA.
Making guidelines, such as the FAA’s December 2020 Safety Alert, mandatory would help.
Currently, that alert states only that the “CDC does not recommend allowing crew members with known exposures to continue to work, even if asymptomatic.”
Industry-wide standards would help ensure the most effective policies are practiced to protect all crew and passengers, whether it’s with contact tracing, symptom screening temperature checks, boarding and deplaning methods, blocking middle seats, food and drink service (especially selling snacks on short-haul flights), or determining exceptions for wearing masks. It would also eliminate the onus on travelers to research each airline’s safety measures and for flight crew to explain each airline’s policies.
To date, 25 percent of the world’s nearly 100 million COVID-19 cases are active. More than two million people have died from the disease. Despite the ongoing risks and warnings against traveling, millions of people take to the skies every day.
Until a majority of the world is vaccinated and infection numbers significantly come down, following the rules may be the best way to get back to normal for everyone. Whether they come from the airlines or the federal government, one simple rule to wear a mask can save millions of lives.
Johanna Read is a Canadian writer and photographer specializing in responsible tourism. A former government policy executive, she’s worked on issues including workplace health and pandemic influenza. Follow her on and Instagram.”,”author”:null,”date_published”:”2021-01-26T00:00:00.000Z”,”lead_image_url”:”https://i.natgeofe.com/n/c71f5e6a-1285-4e84-b37a-1535cb4815ba/civid-flight-attendants-1282604088.jpg?w=1200″,”dek”:null,”next_page_url”:null,”url”:”https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/heres-what-flight-attendants-want-you-to-know-about-flying-during-covid”,”domain”:”www.nationalgeographic.com”,”excerpt”:”Despite new federal mask mandates, pandemic safety measures lack enforcement, leaving the health of flight attendants and passengers up in the air.”,”word_count”:1877,”direction”:”ltr”,”total_pages”:1,”rendered_pages”:1}
Why some snowbirds are flying south despite the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions
What do some birds, butterflies and whales have in common with tens of thousands of older Canadians? They all participate in an annual migration by heading south for the winter.
While we don’t have systems in place to know exactly how many Canadian snowbirds there are, a recent report from Statistics Canada suggests that at least 375,000 typically go to the United States and Mexico each year, not counting other popular destinations. The word “typically” here is important, though, because there is nothing typical about travelling south during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a typical year, we’d expect snowbirds to be organizing potlucks and participating in pickleball tournaments. As of last spring — when COVID-19 started to spread in popular destinations and pandemic measures were rolled out — we saw this annual migration being framed in a very different way.
Concern emerged that snowbirds who had not returned home prior to border closures would no longer be covered by travel health insurance policies. We learned of stressful journeys back to Canada and rising tensions as snowbirds stocked up on supplies after arriving home with orders to self-isolate.
Suddenly snowbirds were not just our parents, grandparents, community members and friends. They were people engaging in a risky practice.
Warm climates, cold shoulders
Recent weeks have seen ample public attention being given to snowbirds once again. Some older Canadians have decided to go south despite the ongoing pandemic and while various travel restrictions remain in place. Snowbirds are getting vaccinated in Florida, leaving some concerned about equity as Canadians receive vaccines before Floridians.
CBC News reports on a Canadian couple receiving the coronavirus vaccine in Florida.
Canadian snowbirds have voiced concern about the new requirement for COVID-19 testing upon return to Canada and complained the associated costs were unfair. And perhaps most concerning, stories of some snowbirds facing serious medical bills following COVID-19 treatment while abroad are now emerging.
Many people are surely left wondering why any Canadians would actually go south this winter. For the past several years, we have been researching health-care access and health management among Canadian snowbirds who winter in Florida and Arizona.
We have spent time in snowbird communities speaking with Canadians, touring hospitals and clinics and talking to health-care providers, and observing community gatherings. We have some insights to offer that help explain why some snowbirds have opted to go abroad this winter — but, to be clear, by sharing them we are not endorsing such travel.
First, there are many factors that prompt people to consider becoming retirement migrants. The warm, sunny weather in popular destinations ly comes to mind first. Many people are also drawn to the social networks found in snowbird communities.
Something that people may be less aware of is that for some snowbirds, relocating for the winter is more economical than staying home. Not all snowbirds live in mansions or have yachts.
For some, going south in an RV or renting a seasonal apartment is a cost-saving strategy.
This budgetary or financial draw is unly to be changed for some, despite the pandemic and strong requests for Canadians to avoid travel.
Paul Funston and Mary Lou Baldwin pose for a photo with their trailer in Fort Langley, B.C., on Dec. 18, 2020. The duo would normally spend the winter south of the border, but with the Canada-U.S border closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are spending it at a campground in southern B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel)
Second, many snowbirds view going south for the winter as a strategy for promoting health. Recreational opportunities, even if done in isolation to respect current public health orders (e.g., going for a walk), are plentiful.
Many snowbirds also report improved health while away, such as reduced arthritis symptoms.
Some older Canadians have opted to go south this winter because they see the health benefits of doing so as outweighing the health risks of developing COVID-19 while away from home.
Third, navigating risks as they relate to health is nothing new for snowbirds. While the pandemic has introduced new risks and heightened others, snowbirds make decisions annually about travelling that involve health factors.
This includes making decisions about purchasing travel health insurance, whether to access care while abroad or return home in the event of a medical emergency, and how and where to get prescription refills. Some go as far as to purchase air ambulance policies so that they can return home if their health worsens, while others opt to make no specific health preparations at all.
Some snowbirds ly view COVID-19 and the pandemic as contingencies that can be planned for.
One thing we know for sure is that some Canadian snowbirds have opted to go south for the winter. Moving forward, we need to consider what this means for their return home.
This includes planning for how to get those who were vaccinated abroad into national registries and creating advice tailored to snowbirds regarding quarantine upon return home.
It is not too early to start this planning — soon enough their return migration will begin.