What it's like being a flight attendant during a pandemic

Kristine Tarbert
·Senior Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer
·4-min read

As borders slammed shut around the world as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, international flights and travel all but ground to a halt.

For us in Australia, heading overseas almost seems like something out of a dream, but globally there were still some flights crossing the much emptier skies, with a few ‘lucky’ flight attendants on board.

empty airport March 17, 2020, in Phoenix
Unusually empty airports were common as airlines cut flights due to the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: AP

Working as part of the cabin crew is often considered a glamorous job, filled with travel and meeting new people from all around the world. But given how much travel changed in 2020, we asked a flight attendant what it was like to work for an international airline during the pandemic.

Tom Andersen is an Etihad Airways Cabin Crew Member and has worked in the industry for almost 14 years.

Having still been able to visit places like Abu Dhabi, London, and New York, the 38-year-old tells Yahoo Lifestyle the past year has been a “whirlwind”.

“It’s pretty amazing to fly around the world right now,” he tells us. “I’m very aware of being one of the few people in the world to do so.”

Tom Andersen Etihad Airways Cabin Crew Member
Tom Andersen is an Etihad Airways Cabin Crew Member. Photo: Supplied

Australian international scheduled passenger traffic in October 2020 was 69,030 compared to 3.587 million in October 2019 – a decrease of 98.1 per cent.

And internationally, for the week starting December 21, 2020, the number of scheduled flights worldwide was down by 40.5 percent compared to the week of December 23, 2019.

Tom says flights have definitely been quieter due to social distancing regulations, but - possibly rather surprisingly - “passengers and staff are equally as understanding during this difficult time”.

Tom is also a Etihad Wellness Ambassador – a dedicated in-flight crew member tasked with providing the highest standards of cleanliness, health and hygiene at every stage of a passenger’s journey.

“Flying has undoubtedly seen a dramatic change - but health and hygiene have always remained a primary concern for our passengers,” he tells us.

“With altering restrictions and shifting regulations many customers have also felt stressed by the idea of trying to navigate the globe.”

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He also explains one of the popular perks of the job is currently off limits.

“Whilst stopping over on international flights, Etihad requirements mean we are no longer allowed to leave the hotel room or use the hotel facilities,” Tom says.

etihad flight attendant pandemic
Tom is also an Etihad Wellness Ambassador. Photo: Supplied

While you might have thought that less flights meant less work, Tom says just because he wasn’t in the air, didn’t mean he wasn’t still working.

“For any days in which planes were grounded and flights schedules altered, I spent my time training to ensure I’m across all the latest travel information and updates,” he explains.

“As you can imagine with new constantly changing government regulations and advice, there is a lot to be across in order to remain informed.

“I need to be able to answers any questions that may arise and put our guest’s minds at ease. Each week I also do an online refreshers course to keep up-to-date with further developments.”

Etihad Airways Airbus A380-800 airplane at New York John F. Kennedy airport
Etihad Airways has continued to operate some international flights. Photo: Getty

While reducing contact with passengers, dealing with the occasional ‘anti-mask’ people, and having to wear additional PPE might be seen as downsides, Tom says there has been one major positive to flying at this time.

“Undeniably, one of the most rewarding aspects of my job has been witnessing families being reunited following months of separation,” he says, adding that he also travelled on many new flight paths.

“Being a part of repatriation flights to destinations that are not on our regular scheduled list of destinations has been quite rewarding as we are able to bring people home to their loved ones and make these tough times more manageable for those who have been stuck away from home.”

And when it comes to the future of international travel, Tom says he has seen positive signs.

“International travel is still taking place, not as freely as it once was, but it’s a positive sign that in time those travel plans that people have scheduled can take place once again.”

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