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Pandemic Has Brought Host Of Challenges For Flight Attendants

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, February 15, 2021 - 2:46pm
Updated: Monday, February 15, 2021 - 2:49pm

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inside an airplane
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
A flight Southwest attendant prepares a plane for passengers to board in 2019.

MARK BRODIE: On his first day in office, President [Joe] Biden implemented a federal mask mandate on commercial airlines — something flight attendants have been pushing for months as they face daily battles with passengers over masks on board flights. Back in April of 2020, the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines across the U.S., requested additional [COVID-19] mitigation measures on flights — something the Trump administration at the time failed to implement, according to our next guest. Taylor Garland is with the flight attendants' union and she says the era of [COVID-19] has brought a host of new challenges for flight attendants. She spoke more about it with my co-host, Lauren Gilger.

TAYLOR GARLAND: So flight attendants are legally required to be on board to ensure the safety and security of everyone on that plane and the overall flight, and in the age of [COVID-19], this looks a lot like mask compliance and making sure people on board are wearing their mask at all times and also wearing it properly. Flight attendants have been telling passengers for decades that you need to don the oxygen mask over your nose and mouth. And that is one thing that people in the age of [COVID-19] can't seem to quite grasp. So flight attendants are dealing with mask compliance issues on every single flight that they have. Some of it is the very common reminder to just pull your mask back up if it's slipped under your nose or you are quickly drinking. And certain situations have escalated to points of, you know, physical altercation. Those are few and far between, but it's something that flight attendants are dealing with on every single flight that they have.

LAUREN GILGER: Wow. Wow. So how do you handle it? Like, what kind of enforcement measures can you take other than continually reminding people if they aren't following the rules in terms of — I mean, like, you can't just kick them out of a out of a flight, you're in the air. But I have heard of flights being rerouted or, or land early because of these things, right?

GARLAND: Correct. So most passengers should know that every single time they come on board right now, they are required to wear a mask. And airlines make that clear from the point that you purchase the ticket all the way through the travel journey. So you're reminded in airports, you're reminded at security, you're reminded at the gate. So there are varying levels of reminders for the mask policy. Now, if there becomes a situation on board, different airlines have certain cards. For example, Alaska Airlines uses something similar, if you're a soccer fan, they use a yellow card and red card situation. And flight attendants will continue to remind you to wear your mask. If you are increasingly resistant or outright defiant of that, depending on how much the situation escalates, the pilots could make the decision to divert the plane or what might more routinely happen at this point is once you get to the point of destination, you will be reported to the airline, and then the airline will put you on an internal no-fly list because of your refusal to comply with [the] mask mandate. The airlines have said that this will be at least in existence through the length of the pandemic and the necessity to wear a mask on, on planes, but it could extend longer.

GILGER: Last question for you, Taylor. I mean, what kind of results are you seeing from this? Like, we've heard a lot of reporting on layoffs for flight attendants, which has been difficult as the airline industry has taken such a hit. But are you starting to see, you know, burnout? People just deciding to take a different path because this is not what they wanted to do?

GARLAND: Well, I think the entire country has been through a lot over the last year and flight attendants have been on the front lines of [COVID-19] since the beginning. You know, we travel and fly to every corner of this earth, including China and Asia. So we were dealing with [COVID-19] before most people in the U.S. were. This public health crisis has caused a financial crisis in the airline industry because of the need to stay at home and not travel. And so flight attendants not only have had to confront public health and concerns for their own health and safety, but we've also had to deal with hundreds of thousands of people either getting laid off or having to take voluntary leave, which is unpaid. And obviously that affects how they feel about everything. So luckily, we, in the December COVID-19 relief package, got an extension to a program called the Payroll Support Program, which capped flight attendants and other aviation workers on the job with a paycheck and connected to their health care. So we are in the process of calling over 30,000 workers back to the job, which is good news for them, obviously for their financial stability, but it also allows the industry to have some more flexibility and ensure that we are maintaining infrastructure and access to all communities across the country. And also, aviation is playing an essential role in the vaccine distribution. And we need to have a full, fully staffed and functioning aviation industry to ensure that we are getting the vaccines to all the places that we need them so that we can get through this COVID-19 pandemic faster and ultimately, to a position of recovery.

GILGER: All right. That is Taylor Garland with the Association of Flight Attendants joining us. Taylor, thank you so much for coming on The Show to talk about this.

GARLAND: Thank you.

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