22-year-old Karla Daniela Fuertes Casañas, who works for a European charter air carrier, was grounded for nine months before she was invited to walk back down the aircraft aisle. Karla had worked for the airline for over two years when the global pandemic struck, and the aviation industry was forced to pause.
During the early stages of the coronavirus crisis, Karla was due to embark on a training session. But when European countries began to implement border closures, her employer postponed the training and returned all crew members to their home base. Karla says: “I was in Vietnam and the first time I landed there I noticed that everyone was wearing a mask. It was a normal thing in the region, so I didn’t take it seriously. But then, we received an email from the airline encouraging us to put on masks while on flight and ask the passengers to do the same.
“Everybody started talking about the numbers of infected people and the death toll. Countries started closing borders, some of our flights were canceled and I understood that something far more serious was going on.”Karla was sent to her home base in Spain where she spent the next nine months grounded. The change was devastating, leading Karla to worry that she might not get the chance to fly again.
“I loved being responsible for customer service. Interaction with so many different people, including adult passengers, little kids, the flight crew, the catering staff, was fascinating to me. I felt super sad because I’m in my 20s, which is the time to travel and enjoy my life. Time passed slowly and I thought that the uncertainty would last forever,” she says.
While grounded and losing hope that she would return to the skies, the stewardess began to explore other career options. As a native Spanish speaker, Karla took a teaching course so she could offer Spanish language lessons.
“I realized that there are a lot of people my age who are in the same situation as me and that made me feel more powerful. I never thought about any job other than cabin crew but, under the current circumstances, I started learning to become a Spanish teacher.”
In September 2020, Karla received a promising call from her old employer inviting her to rejoin the company. “I really wanted to fly, so I accepted their offer,” she says. “Now, I’m working in the airline and I have finally returned to the job I love. But at the same time, I know that if something happens, I have a Plan B and it feels good,” the flight attendant thinks.
Unfortunately, the stewardess didn’t escape the wide-spreading virus. In autumn 2020, during a layover between flights, Karla became infected, which resulted in her having to self-isolate in a hotel room for seven days. “I had no symptoms, but my test showed a positive result. I thought I was going to go crazy with seven days in the room,” she recalls.
Reflecting on the industry pre-pandemic, Karla has noticed that certain issues pertaining to her job role have changed. Like many other air carriers, Karla’s employee was forced to cut the base salary, which caused some inconvenience for its staff.
“I understood that if there were no flights, they wouldn’t be able to pay us as they did before the pandemic. Luckily, I saved some money during previous years and I was living at my mother’s home, so, actually, it wasn’t that hard for me. But for some of my colleagues, especially the ones who have children, it was more difficult.”
COVID-19 has also caused changes to in-flight duties, which makes the job of the cabin crew slightly more complicated. Before the pandemic, cabin crew members mainly focused on flight safety and passenger comfort. But now, it is mandatory to pay additional attention to in-flight hygiene and passenger health maintenance, which can be a challenging task to complete.
Karla says: “We need to pay attention and ensure that all passengers wear a mask. To lower the risk of virus transmission, we must always remember to put on our own masks and gloves as well as disinfect the surfaces precisely. This was something that we had not previously been doing in our daily routine.
“Sometimes wearing a mask is challenging because it is not easy to hear what the passenger is saying, and communication worsens. Also, sometimes we have to deal with situations where passengers refuse to follow the face mask rule.”
Fortunately, the airline manual includes steps to follow should a passenger become unruly onboard an aircraft. “Firstly, we try to talk to a passenger in a peaceful way explaining the reasons why it is mandatory to follow what we ask. But sometimes, they just stand up and start yelling at us. It is not so easy,” the flight attendant says.
Karla adds: “But we always try to smile behind the mask no matter what.”