Heroes of the Front Lines
A plane from Delta Air Lines is seen above the skyline of Manhattan before it lands at JFK airport on March 15, 2020 in New York City.
Johannes Eisele—AFP/Getty Images
April 3, 2020 6:06 PM EDT

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.

Considered “essential critical infrastructure workers” by the U.S. government, America’s roughly 119,000 flight attendants are exempt from CDC guidelines requiring them to self-quarantine after traveling to high-risk areas or potential exposure. Even when passengers are routinely screened or tested at airports, the attendants say they are not. While airlines are not making the number of flight crew workers who have tested positive for the virus public, union representatives say based on self-reported numbers they are already in the hundreds, and they expect them to be higher.

The airlines employing flight attendants who spoke with TIME, including American Airlines, Delta, United, Southwest and JetBlue, say they have encouraged flight attendants and pilots to stay home if they are feeling ill. “U.S. carriers have closely followed and complied with all health and safety rules, as well as CDC and FAA guidance provided to airlines for passengers and crew, and will continue to do so,” Airlines for America, which represents major U.S. carriers, said in a statement. The challenge for airlines has been compounded by the deepening crisis in their industry, which is projected to lose up to $252 billion in revenue this year.

But for months, the rapid spread of the outbreak, overlapping travel bans and conflicting messages from overwhelmed superiors have left many flight attendants feeling forced to fly in order to keep their jobs. According to flight crews from several major airlines, the only way to be taken off their scheduled flights is to provide a doctor’s note or a COVID-19 positive test result. Several described having to staff flights even while waiting to get their test results back. Those who chose to take unpaid leave in order not to endanger others often risked being penalized by having points against them on their record, several flight attendants tell TIME. “They are doing nothing but giving us wipes,” one said. “We’re like bees scattering pollen everywhere.” Others described feeling guilty while helping elderly or disabled passengers, not knowing if they could be infecting them with the serious virus.

A private social media group created for flight attendants to share concerns about working during the pandemic has grown to almost 50,000 since it was created on March 22, overflowing with posts from attendants who tested positive, advice on homemade protective equipment, and offers of food and medicine to those forced to quarantine in hotel rooms in strange cities. “When airlines call us essential, what they mean is expendable,” one flight attendant posted in the group. “Collateral damage, acceptable casualties,” wrote another.

All flight attendants who spoke with TIME did so under condition of anonymity, citing fear of losing their jobs given the stringent airline rules about talking to the press. “So many of us are afraid to speak out for fear of backlash and even firing by our respective airlines,” one flight attendant told TIME. “I know that reaching out to the media is a complete violation of our handbook at my company, but I can no longer stomach seeing my colleagues continue to be exposed to this virus with little to no regard for our safety.”

The flight attendants’ warnings began early in the crisis. “This is an emergency and our government must take a leadership role, in consultation with all stakeholders, in order to end this public health threat and protect American workers,” the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 50,000 members at 20 airlines, said in a statement on Jan. 31 regarding the mixed messaging on the risks of continuing flights to China. But it took more than a month for basic precautions to be implemented more broadly, flight attendants say.

Early on, flight attendants say they were barred from wearing protective gloves or face masks, and even disciplined for it, while not being provided any extra disinfecting supplies. Even now, many say the promised supplies have either not materialized or been given in insufficient quantities to protect the crew. Flight attendants say they are not being provided medical-grade gloves or higher-grade cleaning products that would be effective against the coronavirus, with hundreds of posts in the private social media group outlining the gaps. “We have absolutely no protections besides the gloves we have used in the past to pickup trash,” one flight attendant told TIME.

Most airlines began to allow flight attendants to wear masks and gloves in late March, although many do not provide them. American Airlines says it is adjusting its policy “on a short-term basis to allow flight attendants to wear gloves during all phases of flight.” Southwest told TIME that while it does not have masks to provide “due to a lack of available supplies worldwide….if flight attendants have masks at home, and wish to bring them to work, they may do so.” That policy began March 23. United Airlines said it had added disinfectant wipes, increased the number of gloves by 25 percent, and added alcohol-based sanitizer to flight kits.

Some attendants working for airlines that require them to clean the cabins told TIME they have taken matters into their own hands, sharing tips with each other on how to get around the weak cleaning agents provided by airlines. The suggestions included homemade cleaning solutions with a higher alcohol content – or, in a pinch, even vodka. Bleach, one member cautioned, would strip the fabric of airline seats.

These measures are unlikely to fight off the virus as flight attendants continue to sit shoulder to shoulder in jump seats and use the same lavatories as passengers. Some say that even on mostly empty flights, they have not been allowed to sit in passenger seats to distance from each other. In medical emergencies, they continue to act as first responders without any personal protective equipment. “I have cried every time I am on my way to the airport to start my trip,” one flight attendant for a major U.S. airline told TIME, saying her biggest fear is contracting the virus from her fellow flight attendants.

Now, with most of the country locked down by social distancing measures, flight attendants worry they are becoming prime vectors for the continued transmission of the virus. Despite a drastic decline in travel, almost 200,000 U.S. passengers a day still got planes the last weekend of March, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Flight attendants cite widespread confusion about what different airlines will allow without docking pay or penalizing crew members. “I think regardless of airline, we are all pushed to not call in sick or risk discipline,” one flight attendant wrote in the social media group.

Most airlines work on a points system for unexcused absences or other transgressions, with a certain number becoming cause for termination. More than a dozen flight attendants told TIME that even if they had symptoms or had come in contact with sick passengers, they had to produce a doctor’s note or test positive in order to be allowed to self-quarantine with pay. Between the testing shortage and their hectic schedules, neither was easy to procure. Several told TIME they were told to “self-monitor and keep working” even while they waited to receive their test results back, possibly infecting those around them. “My supervisor said that a note from my doctor saying I need to quarantine isn’t enough and I need the actual positive test,” a flight attendant based in Philadelphia said. “My airline is telling me I need to return in 2 days before I receive my results back,” another added.

After coming off several flights, many also worry about bringing the virus home to their families. Many have resorted to staying in “crash pads,” sharing an apartment with other flight crews. “Airline employees are testing positive daily. We are not immune,” one flight attendant told TIME. “We get home and strip naked in our garages as not to infect our families. Once positive or exposed we are quarantined in strange cities for 14 days.”

As the world has learned throughout the crisis, a key problem in fighting the disease’s spread is lack of information. In the case of airline transmission, multiple flight attendants tell TIME, the problem stems in part from the stringent rules on speaking with the press or posting photos or observations on social media. Some flight attendants have been asked by superiors to remove critical social media posts, or those in which they announced that they had tested positive, attendants say. “Management told me to “tone it down” on social media because I was causing panic amongst FAs,” one wrote in the flight attendants group on March 23.

It’s not only the airlines asking them to stay quiet. Flight crews say they realize their future is tied to the airline industry’s financial state, resulting in peer pressure to do their part to preserve their jobs. Industry leaders have warned that the COVID-19 outbreak will be worse for airlines than the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While the $50 billion bailout passed by Congress as part of its coronavirus relief bill will provide some short-term cash, it’s unlikely to turn the industry around until passengers can start flying again. “It’s just I’m scared none of us may have a company to come back too,” one flight attendant noted.

Publicly, airlines have acted with increasing urgency to assure customers they are making necessary changes. Many, including American Airlines and Southwest, have eliminated food and drink services on most flights to limit exposure. Most say they are doing their best to provide flight attendants with adequate protection in the middle of a nationwide shortage. JetBlue told TIME that starting March 15, they announced they would pay up to an additional 14 days of sick time for any crewmember diagnosed with COVID-19 or instructed to quarantine by a doctor.

Much of the confusion and lack of coordination around the role of flight crews during an infectious disease outbreak could have been prevented if both the U.S. government and airlines had followed the lessons of past global health crises, said Association of Flight Attendants international president Sara Nelson. After the Ebola epidemic in 2015, she and other flight crew advocates flew to Atlanta to meet with U.S. and CDC officials to debrief and develop new guidelines for how airline crews should handle contagious disease outbreaks. But few of those measures seemed to have been implemented during the coronavirus pandemic, which she partly attributes to a mass exodus of the “institutional memory” of civil staff in recent years, with many of those offices not even having their top roles filled. “We did a lot of good work that wasn’t applied here,” she tells TIME. “It would have made a difference.”

The disease itself is posing new challenges. Airlines responded much more quickly to work with flight unions than they did during the Ebola epidemic, Nelson says. But the pandemic moved even quicker, rapidly migrating from international to domestic flights. “It overtook the airline industry so fast it was shocking.” This was made worse by murky messaging from the federal government and President Trump, who for six weeks based the U.S. strategy on stopping flights from coming in, setting off confusion among the workers who kept them running. “There was conflicting messaging from the White House, which made it difficult, and all of a sudden airlines were tasked with protecting the entire population,” Nelson said.

Now, with the U.S. at a critical moment as it passes 250,000 cases and 6,000 deaths, some flight attendants told TIME they are starting to hope the shutdowns reach the airlines, even if it endangers their job security. Until then, many will keep flying. “Guess no one can see the fear behind the masks,” one flight attendant joked darkly. “That’s a plus.”

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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