Torqued: Salute to Aviation’s Unsung Frontline Workers

 - June 1, 2020, 9:00 AM

It’s sad that it has taken a devastating pandemic for us to begin to appreciate all the frontline workers who make our world turn. They perform desperately important functions and deserve our respect and acknowledgement. They deserve living wages and health care, too.

Everyone knows that doctors and nurses are performing heroic, lifesaving work during this awful time. I want to focus here on the frontline workers who are less often acknowledged—at least until a once-in-a hundred-year pandemic forces us to look more closely at their importance. I'm talking about the workers who are keeping food—and, yes, toilet paper—on grocery store shelves. I'm also thinking of the cashiers who until recently were prohibited by many store managers from wearing personal protective equipment such as face shields even though their contact with the public was probably as great as that of any workers outside a hospital. And let’s not forget the janitors who clean up hospitals and essential businesses, bus drivers, train conductors, and delivery people. These workers have proved themselves to be far more essential than any celebrity, and they deserve our recognition.

In aviation, we have our own invisible and usually unsung workers. I often think of my fellow mechanics as being in that category, though they have made great strides in recent years in terms of pay and benefits. But many other aviation workers are underappreciated as well. Some of them must hold two or even three jobs just to get by. Many of these people have continued to come to work despite risks to their own health and safety. They’re the ones who can’t do their jobs from home and can’t afford not to work. They include the men and women who clean aircraft cabins—an important job at any time but particularly during a pandemic, when we want our airplanes thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. These are usually contract workers, making minimum wage or close to it. Their jobs are dirty, thankless, and often backbreaking in normal times. Now, they have the added stress of worrying that they could catch a disease that could make them seriously ill or even kill them.

Then there are the people who refuel and de-ice our aircraft, as well as baggage handlers and other ramp workers. Their jobs are often grueling under normal circumstances—working outdoors in rain, snow, and extreme heat and cold takes its toll. Now, they, too, worry about risks to their own health and that of their families if they bring this disease back home. Even if at work they can stay a safe distance from others and have been lucky enough to be given adequate access to protective equipment, their commutes are often by public transportation where social distancing is not possible and many people are still not wearing masks. (As I write, New York and other states are beginning to mandate wearing masks on public transportation and in other places where physical distancing isn't possible.) For some workers now, getting to work may be more dangerous than the workplace itself.

While I want to focus here primarily on America's underappreciated workers, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that pilots and flight attendants have taken incredible risks themselves to keep our air transportation system running, at least in part to allow healthcare workers and needed goods to continue to move across the country.  

Flight attendants appear to be particularly hard hit by the virus. According to one union for a major airline, 100 of its members were diagnosed with the coronavirus as of this writing and one died in March from Covid-19 complications. The union asserts that some flight attendants have been working without adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, and one flight attendant said that until recently her airline had instructed crew not to wear face masks during flights “but in recent weeks has allowed them to wear masks in ‘neutral colors.’”  

With a raging pandemic, it’s hard to fathom that airline management would prevent workers from protecting their own health—and that of their passengers—by wearing a mask, even after it became obvious that the virus was spreading globally and that airline passengers were a significant part of the reason for that. I have heard these reports myself from workers at all levels of aviation and it’s mindboggling. It's also reminiscent of reports of grocery store management not allowing cashiers to wear masks—until a worker dies of the virus. If one lesson comes out of this pandemic, I hope it’s a renewed commitment by managers in all businesses to the health and safety of their workers. All their workers. 

And, once we all get back to flying regularly, perhaps more air travelers will make it a point to “see” the all-too-often invisible workers who make their journeys possible. It couldn't hurt to say thank you when you come across these people in airport concourses or aircraft cabins, or on the airport ramps.