International flight crews are at the front line of measures to control imported infections, with airlines facing challenging tasks.
Narrated by WANG Hui
Written by CHEN Xiaoshuang
Translated by GU Yiwei
WANG Hui, a chief steward at China Eastern Airlines, has been a flight attendant for 14 years. With most flights grounded and crews on furloughs because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wang, in contrast, has been busy flying "high-risk" routes between China and European cities such as Frankfurt and Paris.
Like Wang, crews on international flights have unexpectedly found themselves at the front line, a key part of measures to control imported infections. Airlines face the challenging task of bringing Chinese nationals safely back while minimizing risks in the process.
For aviation outsiders, this brings a series of questions. How do the cabin crew ensure the safety of passengers and themselves? What happens if someone develops a fever during the flight? Are the crew sent to central quarantine immediately after they get off the plane?
Wang spoke to Jiemian News about her experiences:
The biggest impact of the pandemic, for us, is that we spend less time in the air. Before the outbreak, I flew 80 hours a month, now it's around 20. Apart from mass flight cancellations, we are required to be in quarantine for fourteen days after each flight.
My first time was in January when two passengers from Singapore tested positive for COVID-19, so the whole crew were put into quarantine. The policy back then didn’t require centralized quarantine, so I was isolated at home from January 31 to February 13. I wasn’t worried, as there were not many people on the flight, and we didn’t have much contact with the passengers.
The policy changed as the outbreak worsened and now all aircrew returning from any outbreak area have to be centrally quarantined for 14 days, no exceptions. I actually landed in Shanghai from Paris on the first day the new rule went into effect. The crew were hauled away to a hotel directly from the airport, and not allowed to go home even to fetch a few essentials.
The Paris-Shanghai route is considered "high-risk". All passengers have their temperatures taken when boarding the plane and at least twice more during the flight. A passenger might also be spot-checked, when he or she gets up to go to the restroom, for example. Overall, people have been very understanding of these measures.
The reason for such frequent checks is that it helps us screen symptomatic patients who have taken fever medicines before boarding the plane, as the effects of the drugs typically wear off in three to four hours. Some of them were quite honest about it. On the health declaration form that everyone needs to fill out before landing, passengers are asked whether they have taken fever-reducing medication, and they answered yes. They may have taken the pills to manage their symptoms, as it’s apparently difficult to get tested in some countries.
The last three rows of the cabin are a designated “quarantine area” - passengers with COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever, coughing, or breathlessness, are reseated there. Sometimes, when an unwitting passenger wants to sit there, they will be escorted back to their seats. They are all very cooperative in these cases.
The crew are provided with sufficient protective equipment, including N95 masks, goggles, gloves and even protective suits in case of need. The masks are changed every four hours.
We still wear our usual uniforms on the flights, and only need to change into protective suits when someone develops symptoms on the flight. It’s a lot of work just to put it on! You disinfect yourself first. Then you put on the cap, the mask, the gloves, and the coverall suit itself. There are also goggles and shoe covers. The suits are unbreathable, and one gets sweaty wearing them. They are also too baggy for moving around on the plane. We fix the wrist and ankle areas with tape. Sometimes when we finally take them off, we find deep marks left on the skin by all these tapes and elastic bands. I’ve worn a protective suit once for about three hours during a flight, and I’ve heard stories of flight attendants wearing them for ten hours. Just imagine healthcare workers who are pretty much living in these things!
We have increased the frequency of disinfection on busy flights. Areas such as the restrooms are disinfected every hour. Communication between the flight and cabin crew is mostly over the phone, so pilots don’t need to walk through the cabin.
Food on flights has also changed. To minimize transmission, all in-flight meals are canceled. Bottled water and single-serving packaged food are left on passenger seats before boarding. The airline also takes extra precautions in not sourcing the food from local suppliers - all food and drink on the Paris-Shanghai flight is loaded in China.
People still eat on the flight, but at different times. Of course there are passengers who just sit there, wrapped from head to toe in protective suits, and refuse to eat anything for eleven hours. It’s natural to be nervous. But some passengers tell me that just being able to board a plane back home is a relief.
The passengers are largely quiet throughout the flight. It’s only when we distribute the health declaration forms, usually two to three hours before landing, that they become a little agitated and full of questions. Passengers are legally liable for what they put down on the form, so everyone is extremely careful.
Occasionally some passengers are careless and just check boxes absentmindedly. Once I saw someone answering “yes” to the question “Have you been tested for the Covid-19 virus and confirmed positive?” I was startled but it turned out that he was tested but the result was negative. I had to explain, of course nicely, that the answer is only if he was tested and confirmed positive.
The Paris-Shanghai flight lands in Shanghai at dawn. Disease control staff are waiting outside when the cabin door opens. Passengers who are symptomatic or have had close contact with confirmed patients are let off the plane and inspected first. Other passengers and crew also have one-on-one interviews with the inspectors, and have their temperatures taken one more time.
After that, we spend three hours disinfecting the entire plane. Supplemental equipment, including oxygen bottles, infant cribs, and extra-long seat belts, which, in normal times, are directly put back, now need to be sent to a special facility for disinfection.
Then, on to central quarantine, which takes hours of paperwork. Our health records, passports, and the crew roster all need to be thoroughly checked. It might well be late in the morning when we get to the quarantine facility.
We were among the first aircrews to be centrally quarantined. To help those who need to spend time in isolation, and also to kill time, we even wrote an “Aircrew’s Manual for Surviving Central Quarantine.” During those fourteen days, we exercised together and entertained each other through video conferencing. I also read when I was offline.
I was released from central quarantine on April 2 and went out for dinner with my husband for a small celebration. On April 6, I went to our headquarters for a staff training session, then, on April 10, I was back in the air.
Now, I’m in central quarantine again, but this time, I’m prepared. Last time I had to have my husband send extra shampoo and soap to the facility since I didn’t bring enough. Now I’m well stocked. I’ve brought along a vitamin C drink mix, disinfecting products, pajamas and even sneakers for exercise.
After having been through all this, I’m quite at ease with working on “high-risk” flights. I have confidence in our protocols and procedures. And I am happy to do my share in fighting the pandemic.