I have been working for Piedmont Airlines in Charlotte, NC for almost three years now. Starting on the Ramp throwing bags and working in Utilities cleaning planes, I moved inside over a year ago boarding passengers as a Gate Agent.
I have always taken pride in my work, but not until the outbreak of the Coronavirus have I had as deep an appreciation for my coworkers as I do today.
There is a lot of talk about health workers being on the front lines of this battle and a lot of attention given to grocery store and supply chain employees that are putting themselves in harm’s way while doing their jobs. I agree that all of these people are heroes. They are running into the fire similar to the way that Firefighters and Law Enforcement did during 9-11 in 2001.
I write this today to highlight the completely overlooked heroes working in the Aviation industry. We need to especially recognize all of the people working in airports all over the world.
With the Airlines being classified as an “Essential Business” it appears that flights are not going to stop.
Air Traffic Is Down
The CDC updated their Global COVID-19 Pandemic Notice this past week to include a Level 3 Warning to avoid non-essential travel. This is a good thing.
I work at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport (CLT) which is the 12th busiest airports in the United States based on passengers boarding on a daily basis. CLT has averaged more than 20K passengers a day since 2012. The past week has averaged less than 2,000 passengers.
I have seen flights go out with less than 10 people on board smaller aircraft that accommodate from 50 to 75 passengers. Mainline flights have much larger planes and their booking aren’t any better. Some have flown with one passenger and others with only the crew. One Pilot shared with me this week that he worked a flight to Boston, MA that was empty. That flight then went on to Hartford, CT empty.
Most of the passengers on these flights seem to be crew members being moved into position to work return flights or to work flights going to other stations. Some of these flights are then canceled leaving crews stranded. One crew last week was sent to Nashville, TN and the shuttle service was not running so they had to pay for an Uber service to get to their hotel. Their returned flight was canceled the next morning. They had to scramble to find a flight home later in the day.
On Regional flights, the crews are made up of two pilots (a Captain and a First Officer) and one or two Flight Attendants.
The pilots are working on the flight deck with a door that isolates them from the passengers. They are not completely safe since they are seated well within the recommended six feet from each other for proper social distancing.
The Flight Attendants are quite a different story. They are working directly with the passengers providing them assistance throughout the flight.
One Bag’s Journey
There is a very large population of workers at every airport in the world. It requires everyone from cleaners to caterers to bag runners to ramp personnel to Gate Agents before the first passenger gets on board. All of these personnel can come into contact with the Coronavirus. Some of these workers are more likely to be infected than others.
For example; if an infected passenger comes to any airport with a bag to be checked, that bag’s handle and cover can be infected. That bag can come in contact with the Porter at curbside service or a Ticket Agent at the counter when the passenger checks in.
That bag once checked in goes to the bag room where bag runners sort the bags and another runner runs it to the proper flight. This one bag may come in contact with three or more bag runners.
Once at the plane the bag is loaded into the cargo bin by Ramp Agents. One of these Agents puts the bag on a belt loader while the other Agent is in the bin stacking the bag with other bags.
So in that short journey this one contaminated bag has potentially infected five people (1 Porter or Ticket Agent, 2 Bag Runners, and 2 Ramp Agents)
That bag is now stacked with a number of other bags, flown to its destination and then handled by another half a dozen workers to get the bag to its next flight or to baggage claim. That one bag has now potentially infected nearly a dozen people. This does not take into account the virus transferring from one bag to another bag.
Quite a few passengers bring carry-on bags that are screened by TSA agents in Security Check Points. Sometimes they have to open bags for inspection which exposes them through contact with zippers and clothes and other personal items. These TSA Agents are heroes too.
That same passenger can contaminate a number of personnel by exchanging money with Porters and restaurant workers before getting to their gate. Studies suggest that coronaviruses (including preliminary information on the COVID-19 virus) may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. (Q&A on coronavirus COVID19)
That same passenger then has their Boarding Pass either on their phone or a paper version. As a Gate Agent we ask passengers to scan their boarding pass themselves, but with most people flying once a year (or for the first time) they are hesitant and cannot comprehend how to do it.
With the time limitations we have to board passengers it requires we keep them moving. We may have to scan the pass for them meaning we come in contact with their phone or paper tickets. You’d be amazed how many times I have seen people in line holding their boarding pass in their mouth while trying to get their personal belongings together. Talking about cell phones and personal hygiene is another story for another day.
Why are people flying?
So even with warnings and the death toll continuing to rise, why are people flying? There are legitimate reasons why people are flying and legitimate reasons why the airlines are considered essential.
For one, I have met a number of people this past week traveling to take care of family members.
One man was heading to Myrtle Beach, SC from Greensboro, NC to help his 95 year old father. His father earlier in the day found out that one of his home nurses quit because fear of the virus overcame her.
Another gentleman was going to take care of his 98 year old parents whose nurse was just diagnosed positive for COVID19.
In both of these cases these men could probably have driven, but with airfares way down it made more sense for them to not spend five or six hours in a car when they could be by their parents’ side within an hour or two.
On the flip side of this there have been a number of passengers going from their homes in one State to another State. How responsible this is depends on who you talk to. One gentleman shared with me, “At $77 each way I can go see my grand kids more often.”
In defense of the airlines, a part of the $50 billion stimulus deal requires airlines to continue flying to cities they had scheduled before March 1st, according to USA Today. This is why we are seeing empty flights every single day.
As a way to recover some of the loss on these empty flights some Airlines are offering very low rates. Spirit Airlines is offering $45 each way on almost all of their flights starting May 1st through June 10th.
Right now you can book a flight from Charlotte, NC to Denver, CO for $47 round trip on United and American Airlines. Or you can book a round trip fare to Miami, FL for $55. Yet the question begs to be asked, “At what point should the airlines be held responsible for exposure to passengers and employees?”
Are Airline employees being protected?
Yes, if you look at jobs being protected. There are Voluntary Leave packages and Early Retirements being offered. The Voluntary Leave packages are only extending a fraction of the current hours being worked, but the Federal Stimulus is helping the airlines assure jobs are not going away.
No, if you look at protective gear. A large part of that is due to lack of supplies. Masks are virtually impossible to locate. American Airlines is telling their front line employees that we are welcomed to wear masks and gloves, but we need to purchase them ourselves. They are providing hand sanitizer and wipes at the gates, but Flight Attendants are being provided iodine swabs in place of alcohol wipes.
As a sidebar, it amazes me that we have to lock up the limited supply of hand sanitizer we have because passengers are stealing them. I saw one coworker filling her small bottle from the wall dispenser in a break room. It is sad that people are just looking out for themselves. A large part of that is fear and people will do what they feel they have to do to survive.
On another note, Crew members are now finding themselves in hotels overnight without food. Restaurants are not open. Grub Hub and Uber Eats are not delivering by the time they get settled into their rooms. And drive-through establishments do not allow them to walk up to the drive up window. Most crews prepare their own food, but when traveling four to five days every week those meals don’t always last for more than a couple of days.
If You Have To Fly
If you do not have an essential reason to fly, please do not put yourself or anyone else in danger of contracting this deadly virus. The reality is that there are airport employees now being tested positive for COVID19.
According to CNN, Flight Attendant Paul Frishkorn in Philadelphia died earlier this week after testing positive and Flight Attendant James Rhoades is fighting for his life in North Carolina. I know of three coworkers in Charlotte that have tested positive. Thank God they are recovering.
If you have to fly to take care of family members or for any other legitimate reason, please be careful to not put yourself in a vulnerable position. This includes not huddling in groups while boarding and give everyone adequate space. Wash your hands and face regularly.
When boarding please be prepared to scan your own boarding pass which means you will want to have all of your belongings put away in your one carry on and one personal item.
Once on board think about sharing one of your alcohol wipes and maybe an extra mask with each Flight Attendant and thank them for their courage to be on the front lines insuring you get to where you are going.
SAFE travels everyone and please remember, the more you can wash your hands, the better you can protect yourself and others.
“Stay At Home”
This is a crazy time with the majority of States and County governments implementing “Stay At Home” orders. This makes sense to me since the goal is to mitigate the spread of the Coronavirus COVID19 strand that has killed more than 101 thousand people to-date with another 50 thousand in critical condition worldwide. (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/)
It is clear that this virus doesn’t play and we are just rolling the dice if we think we won’t get it. We all need to practice the CDC guidelines to help save lives.