In March 2020, I returned to O’Hare from a vacation in Guatemala with a renewed sense of appreciation for where my journey had taken me thus far. I’d just returned from a three-week vacation reflecting on my eight years as a flight attendant. Life hadn’t turned out the way I had seen it, but it had provided me with so many of the things I genuinely desired: Independence, joy, and genuine relationships. I was still tripping and stumbling along the way, I was even getting better at learning how to just be, despite circumstances. Then the world around me slowed down before coming to a sudden, screeching halt.
The night before my first work trip after vacation, I sat down in front of my computer to catch up on company emails and national news. While I was away, I hadn’t paid too much attention to what was going on in other parts of the world. I perused reports of several school closings and a couple of localized outbreaks of a virus from China that resembled the flu. In my inbox were friendly corporate reminder emails encouraging flight attendants to wash their hands more often in light of recent events.
My first flight back on duty was surprisingly empty with only 30 or so passengers heading to Baltimore. My crew shared with me that most of the flights they had worked had been unusually empty for the past few days. As I greeted boarding passengers, I noticed only a handful wearing masks. Several wiped down their seats and tray table with sanitizing wipes before sitting down. As a crew, we washed our hands with more frequency. Some wore gloves.
More schools across the country were beginning to close. Travel to China was suspended. Travel to Europe was suspended. The last flight of my trip was full of international passengers with connecting flights, returning from overseas. In the small space, I tried to keep my distance from the flight attendant commuting home from overseas. She chatted it up with other crew members about the long lines in customs and the screening exemptions for the crew, including herself.
New York went on lockdown. But if this virus was spreading, all the hand washing in the world wouldn’t prevent flight attendants from getting sick, as we were required to sit shoulder to shoulder on the jump seat with co-workers who were exempt from screening so they could quickly get to their next flight. As I walked down the aisle pouring drinks and collecting trash, I cringed whenever I heard a passenger cough, sneeze, or sniffle.
I monitored the Facebook groups for airline employees. Flight attendants’ posts from Jet Blue, United, Southwest, Delta, American. Not feeling well. Sick. Trying to get tested. Exposed. Quarantined in hotels. Alone.
As Chicago shut down, flight attendants were classified as essential workers. We were exempt from curfews. We could go to work and transport spring breakers returning from Florida. But, for the first time, I didn’t feel safe going. From home, I checked the news constantly and read new work emails as they came in. More changes and new in-flight service procedures were being implemented each day. Friendly reminders were now bleak, grim statements about unprecedented financial losses. More reports of sick flight attendants appeared in private Facebook groups, along with photos of unsafe, crowded flights. Flight attendant death notices began showing up in the group feed.
When the seatbelt sign is on, half of our job is constantly informing passengers that it’s not safe to move about the cabin. During takeoff, landing, and turbulence, we instruct them to remain seated. Despite the illuminated sign and repeated announcements, there’s always at least one passenger on every flight who gets up anyway. It’s not safe to be up and about. But for whatever reason, these passengers are willing to take their chances.
I’m not willing to take my chances. I haven’t been working for more than 30 days now. I’m at home, on leave. Most of the time, I sit on my couch. I sit at my desk. I sit on the floor and meditate. I never imagined being a flight attendant, and now I can’t imagine not being a flight attendant. But, as I lean into uncertainty and an unimagined future, I’m okay with sitting down and staying strapped in until the turbulence subsides.