- Flight attendants said they got sick less during the pandemic due to increased airline sanitization.
- Airlines began overhauling cleaning in early 2020, when many experts thought COVID spread through shared surfaces.
- As more people get vaccinated and start traveling, workers hope airline cleanliness will remain.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Some flight attendants said pandemic-fueled airline cleanliness has decreased the likelihood of getting sick on board.
One Chicago-based flight attendant, who has been working for more than seven years, said she would usually get sick with a cold or flu around two to three times per year due to the amount of people she was exposed to on the job.
But she told Insider she hasn’t had a cold at all this year. The flight attendant credits the use of masks and decreased passenger interaction to her better health during the pandemic.
“There’s not much passenger interaction, and that’s intentional because of how high risk flight attendants are,” the flight attendant told Insider. “We are flying around all the time. We have a higher risk of infecting more people if we were to contract COVID, so they want us to have as little interaction as possible while still maintaining safety standards.”
The Association of Flight Attendants union reported 3,500 flight attendants contracted COVID-19 as of March 2021. But Insider spoke with seven flight attendants who said they like the industry’s commitment to airline sanitization, and hopes its commitment to public health continues after the pandemic.
All flight attendants interviewed work for major US carriers, though they asked not to name their employers in order to speak openly. Insider confirmed the employment of all the flight attendants featured, including those who wished to stay anonymous so they could speak without fear of retaliation from airlines.
Got a tip? If you’re a flight attendant with a story to share, email the author at [email protected]
Airlines overhauled cleanliness during the COVID-19 pandemic – and flight attendants said they got sick less.
Airlines around the world began overhauling cleanliness in early 2020, when many epidemiologists believed COVID-19 spread through shared surfaces. Australian airline Qantas and Korean Air began using hospital-grade disinfectant designed to kill MERS and avian flu starting February 2020.
Carriers in the US began using new cleaning methods last year to ensure passenger and crew safety. United, Delta, and American began “fogging” the inside of cabins with electrically-charged, high-grade disinfectant. JetBlue added detailed “dos and don’ts” on preventing COVID-19 transmissions to its entertainment monitors, Insider’s Thomas Pallini reported.
Sarah, a Georgia-based flight attendant with a major US carrier, said the biggest difference she’s noticed at work has been the “cleanliness factor,” or how airlines have stepped up their filtration systems and cleaning in-between flights.
“As flight attendants, we have a lot more of an active role in making sure the airlines are clean,” Sarah told Insider. “There’s just a lot more emphasis on the cleanliness of the aircraft.”
Pia, a Detroit-based flight attendant, told Insider she enjoyed working early in the pandemic because people did not know much about how COVID-19 spread and wanted to limit their interactions as much as possible. “It was just a very smooth process,” she added.
As better research showed COVID-19 is mainly transmitted through the air rather than touched surfaces, airlines have touted their high-quality airline filtration to get people back on board. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said passengers “should fly” during the coronavirus pandemic because of how well air cabins recirculate and filter air.
Jenn Ayala, a flight attendant based in New Jersey, said before going on flights she would take vitamin C and hope she didn’t get sick. With additional spraying of cabins and physical distancing, Ayala said she worries less about getting sick on board.
“It just makes you feel safer to know your flight has been disinfected, no matter how short the leg is,” Ayala told Insider. “Even if it’s a 20 minute quick turn, they’re still going to spray.”
Some flight attendants hope airlines’ commitment to public health can stick around for good.
Americans are gearing up for a summer of travel, according to recent data.
The Transportation Security Administration said it screened 1.8 million people at airport security this month, marking a new record high number of air travelers since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed COVID-19 safety guidelines for vaccinated people, but all Americans will need to continue to wear masks inside airports and on airplanes.
The airline industry, which lost significant revenue during the pandemic, is doing away with some COVID-19 safety measures. Southwest rolled back cleaning procedures in August to speed up plane turnaround times, and Delta stopped blocking the middle seat on May 1.
But some flight attendants said they are hoping the industry’s dedication to public health sticks around for good.
One San Francisco-based flight attendant said the profession requires her to be exposed to hundreds of people per day, which requires having a robust immune system.
“I honestly don’t really get sick in general,” the flight attendant said. “I think that flight attendants and cockroaches would be the only people to survive the apocalypse, just because we’re exposed to so much.”
Though the flight attendant said though she did not get sick much before the pandemic, her airline used to discourage employees from taking too much sick time.
She said a positive change from the pandemic is her carrier’s more lenient attitude toward taking sick days. Before the pandemic, calling in sick for two weeks would result in “big trouble,” but her airline granted 14-day quarantine periods for people exposed to COVID-19 to protect the rest of the crew.
“I think that if someone’s sick, they shouldn’t be coming to work, they shouldn’t be pressured to come to work,” the flight attendant added. “So I hope going forward, the airlines will keep [that] in mind.”
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