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Flying during coronavirus is scary. Flight attendants want you to stop

Masked flight attendants
Flight attendants wear masks to ward off the coronavirus at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport on March 24.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The flight attendant spoke from a hospital bed, with oxygen tubes coming out of her nose.

In an Instagram post, the young woman in black-framed glasses, identified as April Rodriguez, looked into the camera and urged her fellow flight attendants to stop flying.

“It’s not worth it,” she said between deep breaths. “Forget your mortgage, forget your bills. Stay home.”

These are some of the unusual new scenes across the Southland during the coronavirus outbreak.

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As the coronavirus outbreak continues to claim new victims, frightened flight attendants, including some stricken by the virus, are pushing airlines that have already slashed capacity by as much as 90% in the last few weeks to reduce the number of flights even more to slow the spread of the deadly disease.

The video of Rodriguez, a JetBlue Airways flight attendant who tested positive for the coronavirus, was posted March 23, nearly a week after an American Airlines flight attendant, Paul Frishkorn, died of COVID-19 in Philadelphia.

About 150 flight attendants have tested positive for the deadly virus, with hundreds more putting themselves in self-quarantine, according to the Assn. of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents more than 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines.

Airline representatives say the carriers have a process of notifying employees if they may have worked alongside a staffer who tested positive for the virus. But in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, the Air Line Pilots Assn. said some carriers haven’t been following the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to notify workers, according to Bloomberg.

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To help slow the spread of the virus, the flight attendants union wrote to the U.S. Department of Transportation on Tuesday, urging the agency to halt all leisure air travel, limiting all passenger flights to essential services, such as flying medical supplies and first responders to hard-hit areas of the country.

Sara Nelson, president of the Assn. of Flight Attendants, said the call to reduce flights is intended, in part, to help slow the spread of the virus and reduce the risk to flight attendants who are worried about flying now.

“We had to make it clear publicly that this is what we are calling for because flight attendants are absolutely concerned,” she said in an interview.

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The association also wants airlines to cut all food service on planes to reduce the contact between flight attendants and passengers and to increase the amount of cleaning supplies to keep the planes sterile, Nelson said. Several airlines have already cut or dramatically reduced food and beverage services.

The challenge, she said, is to protect the flight crews from being infected while ensuring that the airline industry doesn’t collapse.

“We’ve never seen a disruption like this that runs straight through everyone,” Nelson said.

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U.S. airlines have about 750,000 employees, according to Airlines for America, a trade group for the country’s airlines.

The $2-trillion federal stimulus plan that sets aside about $50 billion for airlines requires carriers that want grant money to continue paying employees salaries and serving the same destinations as they did March 1. Nelson said she believes airlines can halt leisure travel and still meet the requirement to qualify for grant funding.

As the pandemic rises past 1 million infected people globally, the crisis has become particularly stressful for workers who come in direct contact with the public and face a higher risk of contracting the virus. That includes medical providers, police, firefighters and airline workers.

In New York, more than 1,400 police officers have tested positive for the virus. State health departments in Ohio and Minnesota say that up to 20% of those infected in those states are healthcare professionals.

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Frishkorn, 65, a flight attendant for American Airlines since 1997 who was based in Philadelphia, was the first American Airlines employee to die from the virus, according to a statement by the airline.

“He will be missed by the customers he cared for and everyone at American who worked with him,” the carrier said in a statement.

American Airlines said the health and safety of its crew members are its top priority, adding that the carrier has adjusted its policy to allow flight attendants to wear gloves and masks during all phases of the flight.

For attendants who are still flying, Frishkorn’s death only reinforced the dangers posed by a job that puts them in close quarters with passengers and fellow employees.

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Other flight attendants said they are feeling stressed about the likelihood of being infected at work, but their biggest worry is passing the virus on to their family. All spoke on the condition that they not be identified because they were instructed by their employers to direct all reporters’ questions to the airlines’ communications departments.

“I’ve even taken steps to isolate myself from my significant other and family when I’m home to avoid exposing them, just in case,” said a 10-year veteran of Delta Air Lines.

Flight attendants say employers are providing gloves, masks and wipes to sterilize their workstations, but others say the supplies are limited and running out.

A longtime American Airlines flight attendant said that she was awaiting the results of a coronavirus screening test this week after working separate shifts with two other flight attendants who tested positive.

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“Oh, my God. We are all scared,” the flight attendant said. “The stress level is crazy.”

She said she learned she may have been exposed to the virus through fellow crew members, not from her employer. “I’m nervous,” she said. “I’m not going to lie.”

The flight attendant said she is also frustrated that she had to recently work — and risk being exposed to the virus — on a flight that included passengers heading to Florida for a vacation.

“That’s what’s getting me mad,” she said. “Why are they traveling right now?”


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