Current Reflections as an Airline Employee in 2020

Being an airline employee comes with a strange relation to airline related articles in the news. It feels like every time I look, I see a fresh article picking on whichever airline has the most current mishap. I even see articles that report on what my company is telling its employees followed by fragmented versions of information we’d already been given fully and firsthand days prior.

Truth is, this can take a mental toll in a time like right now. The easy solution is to stay off of the news. But so many of us are at home and so much is rapidly changing that checking the news seems like a necessary way for me to stay connected. Sometimes I feel a dissonance between what I constantly see in headlines, and what the actual emotions feel like when the state of the airline industry directly effects my entire life.

It has occurred to me that even to my family and friends, just seeing airline news headlines here and there might paint a different picture of what it seems like I’d be doing right now vs. what I’m actually doing. I’m on a leave of absence and still worry about job security, despite the fact that the airlines received government assistance to keep paying their employees. How does this make any sense? My hope is to share my path so far during the covid-19 pandemic.

My February Mindset

My plan for this current time, before all of our lives were directly effected by restrictions due to covid-19, was to be hiking the Appalachian Trail. In February I had:

  • Ended my lease early, March 1st, on my Chicago apartment.
  • Arranged a storage unit for my belongings and moved out.
  • Applied for and was granted a company offered three month leave, March – May, with plans to hike almost that entire time.

How was a three month leave possible at that time?

It’s common for the company to offer leaves by the month during lower flying months. (These leaves are unpaid). Naturally, demand in the airline industry varies throughout the year. For example, holiday periods see a lot more travelers than a month such as January, when most people have returned to their routines and are not traveling for leisure. If the company can offer such a leave, they will do it the month prior, and will award the number of leaves to those who requested it in seniority order based on how many employees they are able to have off that month according to the numbers they need.

Also at that time, covid-19 had not imposed the heavy restrictions that we have all experienced, but did begin effecting U.S. airlines by reducing flights to and from China. That was enough of a ripple to be felt by all flight attendants, as less routes mean less monthly schedules to give out (called “lines”), which in turn means that flight attendants might be awarded different schedules compared to what they’re used to having, or may not be able to have their own schedule at all and will instead be on reserve (meaning “on-call”).

My March Mindset

When the beginning of March rolled around, I had fully moved out of my apartment and put everything in storage, with the exception of some essential items stored at my dad and step mom’s house. I spent a week at their house putting loose ends together and making sure my gear was ready for my Appalachian Trail hike. Then I flew down to Huntsville, Alabama, with the idea that I was going to spend several days visiting my boyfriend before I left from there for the trail. The series of events then unfolded as follows:

  • The idea that places were going to close down started looming in the news.
  • I decided to wait a few more days to leave for my hike, in the event that resupplying in towns could become difficult and effect my hike.
  • Flight demand began falling, and the airline started offering more leave options (unpaid).

Deciding to Take a Six Month Leave

That last bullet point is where things got real. Remember, at this time, it was still unknown how much everything was going to close down, and this was before the airlines received government assistance. With flight demand falling drastically and quickly, the situation became dire, and many flight attendants were stressed. I was already on leave through May, but what this meant was that upon my return, I would likely either be back on reserve, or there was a heavy possibility of being furloughed soon. Both are major life changes. The option was sitting there in front of me to be able to take a six month leave and return to work in October, and this decision became not just personal, but part of a group ideology to help the airline as much as possible so that we could keep as many jobs as possible. It was as if there was an internal calling many flight attendants were feeling that if they were in any sort of position to take a leave, they were thinking about doing it so that more jobs were left for those that could not consider this option.

I spent a solid week with my mind occupied almost 24/7 with the fact that taking six months off unpaid might actually be better for my life at the moment, as well as the common good, than what I would face if I didn’t. Things I considered during that time:

  • The only “rent” I was paying was $81 a month for a storage unit.
  • I had already planned on using my savings to live very cheaply for three months while hiking.
  • I had very few other expenses.
  • If I went back on reserve upon the end of my current leave, most plans I had in place for the summer, whether personal or for friends and family, were in jeopardy. Predictability of my schedule as I knew it would be gone.
  • I could potentially just keep hiking longer and cover even more of the Appalachian Trail if I took the leave.

The final straw for me was that every flight attendant who took the leave could prevent one more flight attendant from being involuntarily furloughed. I was in a position to stretch my savings with little expenses. How would I feel if somehow I didn’t take the leave and was also not furloughed, but in turn a flight attendant was furloughed who would be put in a dire financial position because of it? That truth was the final confirmation for me that turning my leave into the six month offered leave, April – September, was the right thing to do.

It is important for me to note that this decision came with a lot of emotion and was not taken lightly. Even though I determined I was in a position to stretch my savings and ensure my various summer plans could stay in place, clicking that button to apply for the leave, knowing clicking that same button meant I’d be without a paycheck that whole time without the option to return early, was not easy. This is the longest period of time I’m going to go without working any flights since I became a flight attendant in January of 2014.

Entering April and May

Things continued to change rapidly after that. My personal life outside of anything airline related, along with most of us, took some turns due to covid-19 closures.

  • I could no longer leave to hike the Appalachian Trail, as restrictions and conditions led to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy requesting that everyone suspend their thru hikes, and everyone stay off of the trail.
  • Many summer friend and family related events that I was concerned about maintaining my ability to attend wound up being cancelled anyway.

Then the airlines received government assistance.

This was widely covered in the media. I was so relieved that the airlines received assistance, because it meant that none of us would get furloughed right away. Just because I chose the leave of absence did not mean that I was protected from furlough. My leave could still have turned into a furlough, and a leave vs. a furlough are two very different scenarios when it comes to topics like medical benefits, flight benefits, a return date, etc.

For anyone that has only seen headlines that the airlines received government assistance with stipulations that they must keep all employees on the payroll through September 30th, there is potential for it to seem like all is well. Those headlines don’t paint the picture of why I, as well as so many of us, would be on a leave right now, and why things might still feel stressful.

Technically, had I not taken the leave, all of the fears of immediate furlough would not have come true due to the government help. Once my original leave ended in May, I would have been able to remain on the payroll through the end of September. However, the job looks completely different right now than what I knew just months ago. Here are some facts by the numbers:

  • The flight schedule has been reduced 90 percent compared to what it normally is.
  • The airline expected to fly less people in the entire month of May than they did in a single day in May the previous year.
  • In the first two weeks of April, less than 200,000 people flew this airline. Last year during the same two week-period, six million people flew.

With so few flight attendants needed to operate such a drastically reduced schedule, that means that even if we stay on the payroll, life looks completely different for most of us. A few still have their own schedules, while most are back on reserve. With an excess number of reserves and not a lot of flying, that means a lot of time spent being attached to the phone while on call. This might sound like free days off, but I can assure you that being on-call is not the same as time off.

So why is being on leave still better for me than being on the job?

Many flight attendants are able to take the switch back to reserve in stride. There are others that don’t have situations as optimal for this. All of us have built our lifestyles around this job, and as just one example, many people live in other cities and commute to work by flight before they work a trip, then fly home at the end. Now many of those people are faced with the fact that they need to be within three hours of the airport at all times to be on-call. For their scenario, taking a leave might make more sense.

For me personally, it also still makes sense to be on leave despite the fact that the airlines received assistance, and I do not regret that decision. When I realized that I wouldn’t be able to follow through with my original plans to hike during this time, it has been more optimal for me to have some peace of mind and ride out the stay at home order while at my boyfriend’s apartment in Alabama, rather than being faced with the alternative of having to head back to the Chicago area and sit at my dad and step mom’s house on-call day after day, or search for a new apartment while so much is unknown. I don’t have full confidence that I would have mentally handled that well.

With these examples as well as many other scenarios, it makes sense that almost half of our flight attendant population is leave right now as more leave options have continued to be offered. It has also been no secret to us that while it’s a blessing that the airline is being held over from having to make painful decisions now, October might likely bring an end to that. If demand hasn’t returned to what it was before, there is a possibility that many of us will face furlough. While there’s no telling how much at this time, it is still true that the more people remain off the payroll, hopefully the less job loss there will be when it comes time. Every little bit helps the company to survive, making this a better option for a lot of us. Still for many flight attendants, being on leave cannot be an option for their lives, and they are facing many new challenges and changes every time they come to work a flight or every day that they spend on call.

Looking Ahead

While I’d like to spread positivity, in truth, October has become somewhat of a looming date for me. I don’t feel I can decide if I should be looking for another job or not until I know what’s going to happen, let alone have any idea of what I would do. It feels impossible to plan anything. Even if I still get to be a flight attendant in October, the life as I know it that I’ve built around this job is most likely going to return to a life built around reserve. While all flight attendants pay their dues on reserve, some more than others, the truth is that it’s been 4 years since I personally have had to live the reserve life, and while it’s just part of the job, going back to that is admittedly a stressful transition for me. I can’t commit to anything that involves the month of October and beyond because I just have no idea what I’ll be facing when that date comes.

As usual, this reflects my own experience, and certainly does not represent the feelings of all 25,000 flight attendants at my airline or the company itself. But my hope is that it sheds some light on what the experience might feel like right now for some of the faces behind those big airline names. I’m proud of the way my company has handled communicating the situation to us, and I know that a lot of us are just waiting and hoping that our lives we’ve built around this job will still be able to continue in that same manner down the road.


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