A Cape Cod native on life as a flight attendant during the coronavirus pandemic

"There's a genuine fear in the air and that fear is not unfounded."

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This story was told by Paul Hartshorn, Jr., a Cape Cod native, flight attendant for American Airlines, and the national communications chairman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, and has been transcribed and edited from a conversation with Kristi Palma.

My name is Paul Hartshorn, Jr. I am with the communications team for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. That is the labor union that represents over 27,000 flight attendants at American Airlines. This is something that is unprecedented in airline history. Speaking for my airline, I believe we’re down almost 90 percent year over year from May. Again, unprecedented, and something for which we have no playbook.


The CARES Act was created to keep aviation workers, specifically the front line workers, connected to their pay and connected to their benefits as they work through this pandemic. So, with the CARES Act, we joined with a lot of labor unions, airline labor unions, throughout the country, really, to work on legislation that protected flight attendants and pilots and front line workers and people that assist passengers through the airport, all kinds of aviation workers, connected to their pay, connected to their benefits, at least through September 30. So we’re very thankful for that. That was sort of a relief, where we could sort of plug the leak, if you will. At least it bought us some time to keep people connected to their jobs.


The CDC has been very clear that protective masks do help to curb the spread of the virus. Initially, our airline required them for flight attendants only. We thought that that did not make any sense because if I’m wearing a mask as a flight attendant and many passengers are not, I’m protecting you — to the point that I can — but we have no protection. So we definitely stepped it up with congress and everything and made some calls, worked together, again, collaboration across all labor unions, to get the requirement for passengers to wear some sort of face covering, which started May 11, yesterday. So that was a great victory. That’s our singular focus, protecting our crews and, of course, our passengers. We want them to feel safe and we want them to return when they feel safe.


Today we continue the call for more protections, more federally mandated protections, for flight attendants and passengers, pilots, everyone on board the aircraft. We are now focusing on federally mandated legislation that would make it uniform across the airline industry so passengers can feel safe knowing that every airline is conducting the same cleaning, the same protections. We also are working with congress and all airline labor unions to make sure that we have contact tracing of some sort. The quicker that we can get contact tracing and a notification of exposure for our crew and our passengers, that will make it so much safer for everyone and would instill a little more peace of mind as we navigate through this pandemic. We also support temperature monitoring. We’re hoping that that becomes reality as well.


We know that it’s difficult to socially distance on board an aircraft. I mean, whether it’s 10 percent full or 100 percent full, we’re confined to a small metal tube. Flights are consolidated from, possibly, 10 flights a day on a route down to two flights a day. So you’re seeing flights that are more full, and it’s going to be trending that way, I believe, as the summer carries on and more passengers are needing to fly. So we need to be cognizant of that. The job is completely different. Fears are running high. Not everything is known about this virus. So when people don’t know, it instills fear in them. And when you couple that with fuller flights, that adds a lot of stress and consternation.


On board the aircraft, you know, we’ve cut the service. We try not to be out in the aisles as much. We are trying to offer service items as you board the aircraft so passengers at least have something in terms of comfort, in terms of food, and something to drink. But it has definitely changed the way that we look at this job. I think it’s definitely going to change the airline industry for years to come.

Before this pandemic became reality, the aircrafts weren’t always cleaned totally after every flight. You know, it was more of an at night thing, they were given a thorough cleaning. And when you had turns, you know, you flew into one city and you stayed on the ground for 45 minutes and flew back out, you had minimal cleaning, right, you had trash removal, cleaning of, you know, visible trash, things of that nature. But there wasn’t really this full sanitization of aircraft as you would see on, let’s say, on an overnight cleaning. So that was part of the big push that we had with the airlines and labor unions to try to get them to make sure that, on every turn, you were sanitizing things like lavatories, door knobs, passenger air vents, window shades, seatback pockets, things of that nature, that we are pushing today to make sure that the airlines are doing after every single flight because, let’s face it, that’s how you’re going to curb the spread of this virus.


It’s really difficult sometimes inside the cabin. Flight attendants are doing their best to honor whatever they can at this moment to allow as much distancing between passengers as possible. There are still flights that are booked quite light. In that instance, it might be easier to move passengers around to accommodate social distancing to the extent that you can on an airplane. As the flights fill up, it’s getting increasingly more difficult and I think that’s what flight attendants and passengers are struggling with. It’s very difficult. There’s a palpable fear out there. Passengers are asking for seats to be empty, passengers are asking for middle seats to be empty, constantly moving. There’s a genuine fear in the air and that fear is not unfounded. I mean, there’s a lot of things that we don’t know right now about this virus, so we understand. It has definitely been hard on our flight attendants having to navigate through this, really with little to no direction, other than the fact that, you know, we’re trying to clean more and here’s, you know, face coverings and gloves.

Every airport that I’ve been in has been pretty quiet. It’s a different world, with everyone wearing a face covering of some sort. It’s almost eerie, if you will. Definitely unprecedented in the airline industry and we’re just hoping that we can get through this all together and make it safe because, of course, the ultimate end goal is to have our passengers return.

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