Essential or Expendable?

Both the U.S. government and the airline industry have played Russian roulette, that is, a dangerous and deadly game with the lives of flight attendants–all 120,000 of them working for U.S. airlines! Only recently have various airline officials voice concern about protecting their “team members”. That is their public face.

My mother, a wise woman, often advised me, “Actions speak louder than words”. Let’s examine the actions of the airlines and the government officials who should be protecting the public–both citizens and employees. The U.S. airlines have treated their front line employees including flight attendants as expendable. Full disclosure here: I worked as a flight attendant for TWA from 1969-1985 and was an active member of my union, the Independent Federation of Flight Attendants.

Flight attendants are at very high risk for COVID-19
A recent report from the New York Times shows just how at-risk flight attendants are to contracting COVID-19.

Aside from healthcare workers, dentists, and paramedics, flight attendants have among the highest risk of getting COVID-19, given the amount of time they spend in confined spaces with others. Study the chart from the New York Times published March 15, 2020. ( All airline employees should have been provided with protective gear. Some overseas airlines were screening passengers and requiring each to wear face mask as a condition of making the flight. No American airline has done this! Today the United States now has the highest number of known cases of coronavirus in the world.

Time magazine on April 3,2020
Among the first American workers to raise the alarm about a potential COVID-19 pandemic were flight attendants. In late January, as the virus spread outside the Chinese province of Hubei, airline crews staffing international flights to Asia began expressing concerns, asking for disinfection supplies and permission to self-quarantine if they thought they had been exposed. “We were begging to be allowed to wear masks,” one flight attendant for a major U.S. airline tells TIME.

Two months later, as flight crews remain on the front lines of the fight against the virus, they fear airlines’ failure to heed their concerns has turned them into a dangerous part of the problem. In interviews and emails with TIME, more than a dozen flight attendants describe a continuing shortage of basic protection and a confounding lack of guidance over how to do their jobs without spreading the disease. Their gravest concern: that after weeks of working without proper supplies, they have been exposed to thousands of cases and in turn become primary transmitters to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who continue to fly every day. “It’s awful, because we know we’re definitely spreading it, seat to seat, city to city, person to person, hotel to hotel,” one Atlanta-based flight attendant who has been in the job for 15 years tells TIME.

Behind the scenes: Delta Air Lines, via an email communication to 25,000 employees, has instructed flight attendants who test positive for COVID-19 to “refrain from notifying” their colleagues or posting about their conditions on social media. (from April, 10 New York Post article)

Flight attendants and their unions have been pleading for help from their employers since the outbreak began months ago. On March 22, one reporter wrote about American airlines disciplining flight attendants who wore face masks. By April 8, American was scrambling for face masks to protect their 18,000 employees at their Dallas-Ft. Worth facility.

Late in March, 2020 American told workers, including flight attendants, that they could start wearing face masks to work but they had to bring their own. Now with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shifting recommendations to everyone wearing a mask, the carrier is looking (finally) to supply the equipment.

According to the Dallas News article on April 8, 2020:

“Tammy Spence, a customer service manager for American at DFW, showed up to work yesterday with a sewing machine with plans to make masks out of old promotional T-shirts. American management got behind the effort and sent workers to Walmart to find fabric.
Spence said by the end of Tuesday, there were a few dozen workers cutting fabric. By Wednesday, employees had brought more than a dozen sewing machines and began finishing the first batch of masks.
So far, about 100 employees have stopped by to volunteer. Since only about 20 people at a time can work in a conference room turned into a sewing center, they have been working in shifts. They are spread out roughly six feet apart to follow social distancing guidelines.”

In 2018, American Airlines was the most profitable airline group, generating revenue of 44.54 billion U.S. dollars that year. Why were they not setting aside money for emergencies like this one?
An enterprising woman had to bring her sewing machine from home to jump-start the efort to supply this minimum of protection for the 18,000 American employees in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area.

Airline Profits for the Last Ten Years Have Soared
Delta made profit of $4.1 billion for 2019
American made profit of $1.4 billion for 2019
United made profit of $2.3 billion for 2019

Expose: Corporate Greed
For the last ten profitable years major airlines — including Delta Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest — have used roughly 96% of their cash flow on stock buybacks. Stock buybacks function to reduce the number of outstanding shares to push stock prices higher thus enriching all who currently own stock. Rather than invest in their businesses and the labor force groups who generate those profits, these companies were conniving to enrich shareholders. The airline executives also awarded themselves big bonuses for these wise decisions!

If these airline companies had invested most of the profits into building a financial cushion to protect themselves from the cycles of highs and lows we would be in a different place today. If the companies had developed a national aviation-preparedness plan for responding to the threat of communicable diseases, as advised by the Government Accountability Office in 2015, flight attendants would not be using make-shift masks and risking infection each time they go to work. (More about that 2015 directive later.)

If the airlines had shared the profits with employees by making fair contracts with the flight attendants and mechanics and pilots, their companies would have benefited. If the airline executives had decided to invest heavily in better quality service for passengers it would have been a wonderful surprise. Everyone passenger would have appreciated more leg room for every ticket holder on every flight.

Instead, wealthy shareholders, who now hire private jets for their trips, are now richer thanks to those stock buybacks–what a scheme! Instead, the airlines are turning to the government for a bailout because they neglected to invest in their own future. Instead, front line employees are now exposed to a deadly virus without resources to protect themselves. Read more on this subject:

Why were these “legacy carriers” not prepared for an emergency like this? Why did not a chunk of those profits go to a preparedness plan?

In 2015 the General Accounting Office (GAO), as the congressional watchdog over government spending, was asked to review the preparedness of the U.S. aviation system to respond to communicable diseases after the Ebola outbreak.

What did the report recommend? Quick answer: the General Accountability Office told the federal government to develop a comprehensive nationwide plan to prepare the U.S. aviation system and to protect the aviation system against a collapse of this magnitude!

True Preparedness. What Could have Been!

WASHINGTON, D.C. In a report in 2015, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended that the Department of Transportation in concert with key stakeholders like the airlines, should develop a national aviation-preparedness plan for responding to the threat of communicable diseases.The report was produced in response to a Congressional request for a review of how prepared the US aviation system is to respond to potential communicable disease threats from abroad such as the recent Ebola epidemic.

The report stated: “a national aviation preparedness plan could serve as the basis for testing communication mechanisms among responders to ensure those mechanisms are effective prior to a communicable disease outbreak as well as to provide the basis for ensuring that airport and airline staff receive appropriate training and equipment to reduce their risk of exposure to communicable diseases during an outbreak.”
The report also highlighted the concerns of workers employed by contract aviation service firms – including contract workers who clean aircraft — about the availability of training and access to equipment to control exposure to communicable diseases.“>

January into February: “Help Us–We Are On the Front Line!”
Since first hearing about the global spread of COVID-19, flight attendants have raised concerns regarding protective supplies including masks but were only given wipes, a flight attendant told TIME. Some airlines even prohibited attendants from wearing gloves or face masks aside from the gloves they were provided to pick up trash. According to TIME, it wasn’t until late March that many airlines allowed flight attendants to wear masks and gloves on their own accord.

Despite efforts to keep safe by bringing their own protective material aboard and through extra sanitation efforts, flight attendants continue to risk exposure to the virus in daily work activities. Attendants not only use the same restroom facilities as passengers but sit close together when aboard flights in their rickety jump seats.

“When airlines call us essential, what they mean is expendable,” a flight attendant wrote in a private social media group created for flight attendants to share concerns amid the pandemic. Created on March 22, the group has over 50,000 members, including crew members who have tested positive for COVID-19. Like health care workers, flight attendants also fear losing their jobs should they speak to the press, so groups like this have allowed individuals to talk about their situations without that fear. reported by Time, April 3, 2020

In a video shared by one of her friends with The Washington Post, another flight attendant had a blunt message for her colleagues: Stop flying.

From her hospital bed, she recounted how she worked a nearly two-week stretch last month and felt fine. But on her day off, she began feeling congested. She thought it was allergies. Now she’s hospitalized with covid-19.
“I’m asking all of my flight attendant friends to stop flying,” she said. “It’s not worth it. Forget your mortgage. Forget your bills. Stay home.” From Washington Post, April 8, 2020

Flight attendants are the safety directors on every aircraft. But who will look out for those safety directors? Not their employer. Not the U.S, government. Why did the U.S. government ignore their own warnings about the U.S. aviation system’s vulnerability to potential communicable disease threats from abroad? Why did the airlines willfully ignore this threat? Perhaps flight attendants are, in fact, expendable in order to ensure the best returns on those high profit years.

Since the earliest years of aviation in the 1930s, flight attendants have performed heroic acts in the line of duty. Flight attendants have lost their lives in the line of duty. Twenty-five flight attendants on a ordinary work day were killed in the terrorist attack on 9/11. Hijackings, bomb threats, medical emergencies, hostile passengers and more are part of the job. Where is the concern, the compassion and the respect for these working women and working men?

“Qantas staff are exploring options, including a class action alleging the airline failed to adequately protect them against Covid 19, after more than 59 employees became infected along with some family members.

The Flight Attendants’ Association of Australia has begun exploring possible legal avenues for staff, amid deep dissatisfaction about the way in which Qantas has handled what they say are the risks, particularly to cabin crew.”
from The Guardian newspaper April 12–yesterday

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2 Responses to Essential or Expendable?

  1. Lila says:

    Great article, Paula!
    I think I will share on FaceBook!
    Linking to this post!

    • Paula says:

      I’m thrilled that you want to share the article–it seems important for people to realize how the airlines and the government are treating flight attendants and the other airline employees (as well as TSA agents). All of these transportation workers are on the front line of COVID-19 exposure. Designating them as essential and then treating them as expendable is unforgivable.

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