American Airlines has not been providing its flight crews promised masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and other personal protective equipment that health experts say are crucial for guarding against coronavirus, airline workers have told Cheddar.
Flight attendants have had to bring their own equipment, they say. And though American Airlines had said that it would provide at least gloves and hand sanitizer, necessary provisions have not arrived, causing flight crews to empty dining and drink carts of gloves and even raid airplanes' emergency equipment.
At the same time, while lacking protective equipment, the flight attendants' union this week declared that its most junior and inexperienced members would work the bulk of American Airlines flights that are still scheduled. More senior union members, meanwhile, are being allowed to stay home while being compensated as if they were still working.
Yet, if American is forced to institute furloughs this fall, the same junior members who are working through the pandemic will nonetheless be the first forced from their jobs under the seniority rules that govern much else in the union.
Desperate for Protection
"We've been given zero PPE — zero — from the company. No sanitizer. Zero. Nothing," a Texas-based flight attendant told Cheddar. "A lot of catering stations are out of the gloves now because the demand has spiked — a lot of times the gloves are not where they should be, so it's no guarantee."
The flight attendant added: "We had two to three masks on the airplane, in our emergency kits. But of course they were pillaged at the moment this started going down. So those have disappeared."
Such complaints were corroborated by other flight attendants who spoke with Cheddar only on the condition of anonymity because airline policy bars employees from speaking to the media without authorization.
With complaints among flight crews escalating, American Airlines sent an email to employees late Wednesday, saying that more masks and hand sanitizer are on the way, with the first shipments set to arrive as soon as this week.
The outcry from American Airlines employees gets at the heart of the difficult questions facing many businesses in the midst of a global pandemic. Hospitals, let alone airlines and other industries, are still struggling to find enough protective gear, and health experts argue that the few masks that are available should go to frontline medical workers first. At the same time, the federal government sees airlines as an essential industry to help maintain crucial transportation links; even if airlines wanted to cancel flights for lack of masks and other protective equipment, doing so would make them ineligible for some $50 billion in federal aid that they so sorely need.
Flight attendants who spoke with Cheddar said that they are continuing to report to work, despite the health risks, to maintain their health insurance and to cover bills and expenses, all the while dealing with waves of fear and anxiety.
One flight attendant who spoke with Cheddar recounted her experience on a flight in late-March with about 100 passengers and only six sanitizing wipes. Another told of being handed "a micro-bottle of hand sanitizer, and that was it."
"We were told, 'You're going to get X amount of gloves, X amount of alcohol wipes.' It never happened," a six-year flight attendant based on the West Coast told Cheddar. "We don't know how well they're cleaning — we all feel more comfortable walking on, wiping things down ourselves. And the pilots are in even closer quarters than we are. We can walk away from one another, they can't."
Death Within the Ranks
Although American has scaled back in-flight service to limit crew members' interaction with passengers, and some of the most popular routes now have only a handful of passengers, at least 100 American Airlines flight attendants have reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus disease known as COVID-19. One of the airline's flight attendants, based in Philadelphia, died of the disease last month.
"I do have fear," the Texas-based flight attendant said. "American has tried to mitigate almost all interactions on the airplane. But traveling, you're moving, you're touching things that everyone else has touched — you don't even think you're doing it, touching a handrail on a bus, touching a TV remote in a hotel. So I am worried. We have to mitigate as much risk as possible, and I just don't feel that that's what the company did."
Meanwhile, one of the two main unions that represent flight attendants, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said it had been "pushing the Company since January to be more proactive" in helping safeguard flight attendants.
"We have consistently advocated for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for all of our Flight Attendants to be available on every aircraft, for social distancing between passengers and crew jump seats, for thermal scanning in the airports, and to receive immediate notification of Flight Attendants who have tested positive for the virus," national president Julie Hedrick said in a statement. "Flight Attendants are aviation's first responders who are transporting medical personnel and supplies into COVID-19 hotspots, and they need to be treated and protected as such."
Not Everyone Has to Take the Risk
However, flight attendants who spoke with Cheddar said that the union has only added to the anxiety — and, increasingly, outrage, especially among the union's younger members. As American Airlines has slashed its flights by 80 percent, there are far more flight attendants than there are flights available. And because the union's contract guarantees a baseline wage for flight attendants who aren't able to schedule any flights, APFA leaders had to decide which union members would be allowed to stay home while collecting a base wage while others would continue staffing — or "bidding" for — flights.
The APFA, which represents some 27,000 flight attendants at American Airlines, opted to call upon its most junior members to fill the ranks in May — while allowing the most senior members to opt out. The senior flight attendants staying home will be paid as if they worked 70 monthly hours of flight-time, about three-quarters of a typical monthly schedule.
"They had to make a cut-and-dry decision of who they were going to remove from the bidding system for May because there's limited options and limited time," an APFA spokesperson said. "It's not something that leadership took lightly. The only option the company presented was, 'We need to remove people from the bid: Senior or junior, who's it going to be?'"
Last Ones In, First Ones Out
The move nonetheless prompted an outcry from junior members, who argue that they are being singled out to put their health and even their lives at risk while more influential senior members are allowed to stay at home with pay. Moreover, while some $50 billion in federal aid for airlines largely bars the companies from furloughing and laying off workers, the restrictions end Oct. 1 — meaning, if the airline industry hasn't recovered from the crisis, junior employees will be the first to be out of a job under the seniority rules that govern much else in the APFA union.
"'Anger' is a good word. I feel like we got thrown under the bus," the flight attendant based on the West Coast said. "You're going to make us go out there all summer for you, and then when this stimulus money is out you're going to throw us to the wolves — we'll be the first to get cut."
As the Texas-based flight attendant, who has fewer than 10 years on the job, put it, "If American forces the junior flight attendants to work hard all summer, we get double-screwed because in October we get sent home packing with no job and no insurance."
The union hopes to institute a different approach in June, the APFA spokesperson said. Any furloughs, if needed, would occur after voluntary buyouts, the spokesperson added.
American Airlines, in an email to employees late Wednesday that it subsequently shared with Cheddar, meanwhile said that it has "been working diligently" to buy hand sanitizer and face masks.
"We're in the process of shipping thousands of 8-ounce sanitizer bottles to each crew service center," the airline said. "And in the next few days, each base will receive their share of over 700 large gallon containers of sanitizer. We'll provide small 4-ounce empty bottles for crew members to fill up and take with them, or you can fill your own small container. We're also expecting a shipment of more than 140,000 surgical masks and will be sending them to the bases by the end of the week at the latest."
The flight attendants who spoke with Cheddar said that they understand that masks are in severely short supply, and they agreed that as many masks as possible should be going to medical workers first. The airline has allowed roughly 7,200 of its flight attendants to take extended paid leave, no-questions-asked — albeit at a minimal level of compensation — while still accruing health insurance, sick days, vacation days, and other benefits. American has also
said that it will not contest unemployment claims; close to 800 flight attendants have taken early retirement.
Yet, even so, American Airlines employees said, they are deeply frustrated by the company's failure to deliver on its promise to provide even more basic protective equipment like gloves and sanitizer — and equally if not more appalled by the union's apparently inability to force the company to do so or to provide that equipment itself.
Though American, in an April 4 email to employees, promised that "masks are on the way" — and in the subsequent email four days later promised that the masks and other protective equipment would soon be shipped — flight attendants remain deeply skeptical that any of it will be delivered anytime soon. Those still working have had to scrounge up surgical and N95 masks from parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who work in medicine, or even settle for dust masks and respirators normally used for woodworking and construction.
"I'm lucky to have families and friends who are worried for me, so they gave me what they could find," a three-year flight attendant based on the East Coast said. "Someone was going to have to fly these trips — and I am grateful that I have a job. I am willing to fly — but the fact that an entire demographic of flight attendants is being expected to go out there and risk our health, with no benefit to it, no hazard pay, it's shocking."