Kevin Wilson | CUPE Communications

From flight attendant to medical officer

In normal times, flight attendants and other airline workers are a familiar and welcome sight, helping travellers get to their destinations safely and comfortably.

These times are anything but normal.

Airline workers found themselves on the very front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtually from the beginning, transforming overnight from ‘customer service ambassadors’ to guardians and life savers as the Coronavirus began ravaging one country after another.

“As far as we’re concerned, we’re on the front lines of this and have been from the very beginning,” said Christina (not her real name), a flight attendant for Air Canada’s main line.

Christina is a veteran flight attendant. She was working during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and during H1N1, the most recent flu outbreak.

“This is all deja-vu for me,” she said.

In the early days of the Coronavirus outbreak, Christina found herself flying several times in and out of an early North American hot spot. Almost overnight, she and her colleagues found themselves dangerously exposed, without clear guidelines from governments and their employer, and with little personal protective equipment.

It is in this environment that Christina and all of her Air Canada Component colleagues found themselves on the front lines of defence against a highly contagious viral outbreak.

On one of the last flights in this particular cycle, a passenger in transit from hard-hit Italy boarded the flight and complained of feeling unwell, demonstrating symptoms of COVID-19.

“He clears customs with no checks and balances, then gets to the aircraft complaining of feeling ill and we’re the first line of defence. You have to switch to a different mode and put on your safety hat,” said Christina.

After consulting with the flight captain, Christina and her fellow flight attendants made the decision to keep the passenger off the flight.

“The paramedics came, fully suited up in gloves, gowns and masks. It was a very scary and disruptive situation just before a flight, and I thought to myself we’re going to be seeing this more and more,” she said.

From this moment, it was clear to Christina that she and her colleagues were going to wear many different hats to ensure both personal and passenger safety.

In the ensuing weeks, Christina and her colleagues were caught up in a whirlwind of activities, as travellers raced to get themselves home before nations closed their borders. Now, they face more uncertainty as COVID-19 plunges the global economy into recession.

“This is going to be far more impactful than 9/11 for our industry,” said Christina.

Commercial air travel has ground to a virtual standstill. There is no immunity from layoffs.

Despite all the uncertainty, fear and upheaval, airline workers like Christina have consistently demonstrated their skills and professionalism, said Theresa Mitchell, vice-president of the Air Canada Component of CUPE.

“We are so proud of them, and so committed to doing everything we can to help and support flight attendants … on a very basic level, we understand how difficult this is,” said Theresa Mitchell.

“As an executive, we have never felt more unified with our members. They need our support and we are doing everything in our power to help them,” she added.