Caring during COVID-19: The Essential Work of Being an Airline Worker

Photo of an airplane waiting to take off on the runway.
Photo of an airplane at LAX by Wilson Ye via Unsplash.

Oakland Voices asked our correspondents to chat with those affected by COVID-19, including essential workers. 

When the airport began to suffer bad press associated with recreational travelers still flying during the COVID-19 crisis, frontline essential airline employees were left to answer a lot of the first hand and very blunt comments. These same employees continued to provide the best service they were trained to give while at the same time managing their own apprehensions and the ever-increasing fear for their own health and safety. Then as domestic and recreational travel started to decline, the customer service challenges became greater.  

Airport traffic is going up; according to the Port of Oakland, the number of passengers going through Oakland International Airport increased 34 percent from June 2020, with 341,831 total passengers in July 2020, an increase of 86,000. (July 2019 1,233,165 passengers).

I asked KM*, an Oaklander and flight services manager working for a major airline stationed in Charlotte and who has since transferred to LAX, how it felt walking through that empty airport and if it added to her feeling of fear and hesitation.

She said that in addition to her own fears and health safety issues, she had to fend off comments about why she continued to work there. “I saw more travel in Charlotte than I do here in California and I think it is mainly due to the statewide shift and California being a hotspot. People are distancing and I would say that 99% of travelers have on masks now that they are required to have on for the duration of the flight, or they risk not being able to fly until after the mask mandate is over.”

She candidly shared challenges, concerns, and comments received. “Even though you cannot expect the entire airline industry to come to a screeching halt because not only is it essential to the nation but from an employee standpoint, there is also a double edged situation. Without the so-called bail-out, my livelihood and those of many airline workers comes to a screeching halt and life would change drastically as would the lives of so many who benefit from the industry. This so-called package covers me until September 30th, and unless there is an increase in travel confidence and people return to recreational travel, after that, none of us are any longer essential.”  

What are your hopes for the future traveler of tomorrow and how it will affect you? “That this pandemic will teach people to maintain a healthy safe space to travel in; maintaining good hygiene, social distancing consideration, and being aware that traveling while sick endangers not only themselves but also airline workers also. Until that happens, my job and the jobs of many others as well as the health of future travelers will always be in jeopardy.”

Since this interview in April due to the airline travel situation, the employee has been relocated back to California. “It’s been odd witnessing the change in traveling and how airlines comply in different manners. People are not flying due to the virus, but those that are, are led by the low fares. The virus stopped many people but not all.”  

*KM prefers her full name not be used.

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