Working in the time of coronavirus: The passengers made fun of our protective suit, recounts an Air India air hostess

An air hostess who requested anonymity speaks about her experience to Moneycontrol.

I was part of the crew on one of the Air India flights that brought foreign nationals stuck in different parts of India, to Mumbai. From Mumbai, they were flown to Europe on another flight.

It was not a pleasant flight. Most of them were not supportive. Not even half of them were wearing masks, and neither were they maintaining distance.

We heard that they weren’t quarantined and hadn’t taken any tests to check for COVID-19. Just the temperature check was done on them. I have read that sometimes symptoms are subdued in the initial stage, and tests are needed. What if it was the same for these passengers? That put us at considerable risk.

Worse was that some of them made fun of us, as we were wearing hazmat suits for protection. My friends, who were on other flights ferrying the foreigners, had similar experience. Some were called aliens. Not funny.

The passengers were treating the flight like just another commercial flight. It was made clear to them that this was an emergency/medical flight, and that there won’t be normal service. Each passenger was given a refreshment box. But they kept asking for more refreshments, and kept coming up to our resting area for tea or coffee. There were 250 of them, and I was glad when the flight got over.

By the way, if the Indian government can ferry Indians from different parts of the world and bring back home, why can’t the airlines of countries these foreigners belonged to, do the same?

I hear there are many more Indians that are stranded world over. Why can’t we have flights to bring them back?

Like the time Air India flew back Indians stuck in Wuhan, when the Coronavirus broke out. A friend was there on that flight. The passengers were very supportive, and cheered and thanked the crew once the flight was over.

The suit

We were given guidelines to protect ourselves while operating these flights. We wore the suit, which is made with a paper-like material. We also wore goggles, mask and the shoes were covered.

But the quality is poor. By the end of the two-hour flight, the suit had torn. Air India pilots had also highlighted this problem.

At the start of our duty,  we had placed the refreshment boxes on the passenger seats.  This way we would restrict engagement with passengers and practise social distancing. Just before opening the gates for the passengers to board, we put on the suits.

It is difficult to work wearing the suit. I couldn’t use the washroom. I wonder how my colleagues on international flights will hold on for over six to eight hours.

Professional risk

It is not easy working during these times. We were first asked to volunteer for these rescue flights. Very few did. A roster was then created, and I was called for duty.

I left home at midnight to report for duty. Luckily only the apartment security guard saw me. I was worried as some of my colleagues had been abused by their neighbours. When I came back, again at night, a neighbour saw me. But he is also in aviation industry, so was understanding. I felt like a thief, trying to sneak into my own house.

Even though it was a domestic flight, many of us have decided to quarantine ourselves after coming back home. But even that is not easy. Many of my friends live in a joint family, and can’t ask other members of the family to move out.

Some could. Like one friend’s children, husband and mother-in-law moved out to relatives houses. But not everyone has this luxury. That puts everyone else in the family also at risk.

I have quarantined myself for a week.

I’m waiting for the lockdown to get over. But we fear about our jobs. Already, we hear that up to 30 percent of our allowances will be cut. I hope there is no risk to our jobs.

As told to Prince Mathews Thomas

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