Clipped wings

‘Can you put me in your suitcase?’ is something friends of flight attendants always say. But flying in the time of COVID-19 has given new meaning to their job — they are frontliners, too.

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Like a thief in the night, the coronavirus attacked unforeseen. It came to steal, kill and destroy like the devil that it is an invisible monster unleashing its wrath and forcing the world to conform to new norms for the preservation of mankind. 

Sounds like a sci-fi movie, except that it’s our reality now. 

One of the worst-hit industries is my home for many years — the sky or the airline industry. When the call came to stop moving, our wings were clipped. When the world stood still, our world shook and many have fallen.  

All the airlines in the world, without exception, have taken painful but necessary measures to stay afloat. We held our breath as, one by one, and then by the hundreds and by the thousands were laid off.  

My heart broke even for those flight attendants from far and beyond. I do not know their names, but I know their stories. 

Joanne dreamt of being a flight attendant since she was five. After seven rejections, she finally became one — for six months… and was let go. She said, “I lived my dream for a moment, and only for a moment.”

Chris, a father of four and the sole provider of his family, was let go after eight years of flying. How does a father put his worries and fears into words? 

A wise senior once told me that a flight attendant who changes careers is like a fish out of the sea. Nowhere will it ever feel like home again.

Wahdah, who dedicated 22 years of her life to the career she loved, was also let go. She is now 43 years old, without a husband or children, and now without a job. She said, “I’ve been a flight attendant half of my life, I don’t know how to become anything else.”

Where are they now? Part of the statistics. These displaced workers are probably missing the sky. I read an online comment from a newly terminated flight attendant. She wrote, “What I would give to work six sectors again.” Our hearts bled for her. In the world of aviation, six sectors are equivalent to being in a washing machine. 

A wise senior once told me that a flight attendant who changes careers is like a fish out of the sea. Nowhere will it ever feel like home again.

According to Business Insider, 64 global airlines in April completely stopped flying scheduled flights due to travel bans, air space closures and low travel for demand. It was sad to see our beautiful steel birds collecting dust on the ramp. It was painful to see our wings pulled up. 

Those wings must fly — again!

Finally, the skies began opening up again, and the blessed few who got to stay all of a sudden became frontliners — a word I had never come across before became a new jargon to us. Then there are the repatriation flights, which is bringing people home, even when it means we don’t get to come home.

The bearers of chocolates, little gifts, beautiful photos and funny airplane stories are now scared to bring home the virus, too. Many of us are choosing not to come home while some of us were locked outside of our countries and/or bases when the airports shut down. I have never felt so sad in my wings. But I have never felt so honored and proud of my wings, too. 

Yes, we are trained to perform first aid and save as many lives as we can when needed, but most of us will retire without having to actually save a life. People know us mostly for our red, bold, bright lips; hair in a bun, not a strand on the face; nails perfectly polished, not a centimeter too long; shiny high-heeled shoes click-clacking around the world as we pull our suitcases along. 

“Can you put me in your suitcase?” friends used to ask me. If I had a peso for every time I heard that…Trolley Dolley, that’s what they called me.  But oh my, oh my! It feels like a lifetime away.

Flying in the time of COVID-19 has given a new meaning to our job. I am an essential worker. I bring your loved ones home. Confined space, recycled air — these wings must fly.

My once made-up face is now covered by a mask, PPE and goggles — my shining armor to bring you home. Gone are the caviar, the fish or the chicken. COVID has reduced us to a snack bag from economy to first class. The mask conceals the smile that used to greet you. Flying in this time brought us back to what is important, what is essential — life. The world has been so caught up with all the mundane things.

Our working hours are extended because we can no longer have a layover in our destination cities, and of course, our paychecks are drastically reduced. That means we now fly all the way to America and turn around. There are days when we literally stay two days on the plane. It’s a labor of love. 

I ensure that everyone onboard wears a mask, not only to protect one’s self, but more importantly to stop what I can potentially pass on to others. A gentle reminder that I am my brother’s keeper, after all. 

Being a frontliner is truly an honor, but it’s also intimidating knowing that there is no vaccine or cure just yet. That means I have never prayed harder before a flight. I pray for every single one of my passengers — that all of them, all of us will be COVID-free. I heed the call of duty and take each flight with faith, that my God is greater than this and what will be, will be. 

One day, there will be a cure. Don’t lose hope. The planes will be full again, and the skies will rock once more. I hope then that you will remember my humble contributions — that I, too, was a frontliner. Hopefully, you will also fasten your seatbelt the first time I ask you to.


Edited by Tanya T. Lara

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