Terrified Airline Crews Wonder, ‘Is It Okay to Keep Working?’

Molly Choma, a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines, questioned whether she should keep working during the pandemic but decided that “this is what I’m supposed to be doing right now.” Credit…Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times

Molly Choma, a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines, had worked nearly every day since mid-March, even as the coronavirus outbreak devastated her industry. But last Sunday, she woke up alone in a room in a nearly empty hotel and wondered if it was time to stop.

As she prepared for Flight 1002, which would bring her home to the San Francisco Bay Area from Washington, Ms. Choma, 33, turned on the news and texted her colleagues. Were they planning to keep flying? Should she?

“I’m thinking about my family, thinking about my friends, thinking about what that would mean for the rest of the month,” she said. “I don’t know how this thing is going to shape my life or the world or aviation or the history of pretty much everything.”

Airlines have canceled a staggering number of flights, but thousands still take off every day, leaving many of the people needed to keep them running to reckon with whether to continue working and how to stay safe if they do.

For Ms. Choma, those remaining flights provided a financial cushion. After the pandemic halted the photography business she has nurtured on the side, she took on flights from colleagues who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, staff them.

Some airline employees have continued to show up reluctantly, either because they need the money or fear losing their jobs once the crisis has ebbed. Others who had once relied on extra income from loaded-up schedules now have to make do with what few flights are available. Tens of thousands more have taken unpaid leave, staying home out of necessity or concern or to free up slots for colleagues who may need the income more.

Already, hundreds of flight attendants and pilots have fallen ill and at least five have died from the coronavirus, according to the labor unions that represent them. And even though the industry secured $25 billion from the federal government to pay employees through September, the future remains bleak.

Many airlines are likely to emerge from the crisis with fewer employees, and a full recovery isn’t expected any time soon. It took several years for passenger volume to rebound after the terrorist attacks in 2001, a shock less severe than the current crisis, which is seen by many as the worst in the history of aviation.

The devastation arrived abruptly in late February as new bookings started to plummet and cancellations began to surge. Less than two months later, air travel has fallen to new lows. On Tuesday, for the first time since the Transportation Security Administration was formed after the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency screened fewer than 100,000 travelers, pilots, flight attendants and airport and airline workers at its checkpoints. On the same day last year, it screened more than two million people.

Airlines have slashed service dramatically, but they still run thousands of daily flights. On Tuesday, for example, there were nearly 8,000 flights in the United States, compared with nearly 35,000 a year ago, according to the aviation data provider OAG. The industry is cutting more, but must maintain minimum service to many destinations under the conditions Congress imposed on the grants earmarked for airline employees.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Niraj Chokshi