Jamaicans reach for panic button as COVID-19 spreads

Senior staff reporter

Monday, March 23, 2020

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Some Jamaicans working in the airline industry in the United States are reaching for the panic button, while for others it is business as usual as travel demands plummet amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, forcing large airlines to scale back flights and cut staff.

The Jamaicans, employed to Delta and Spirit airlines and who spoke to the Jamaica Observer on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to the media, explained that already companies have asked that employees go on voluntary leave as several move to stave off the financial fallout from the outbreak.

“It definitely has not been business as usual,” a Delta Airlines pilot said when contacted, “We've obviously had a lot of cancellations and that's going to continue for a long time. People are really afraid to travel. So there are definitely concerns because your job is on the line as a result of this outbreak and how companies are responding.”

Last Wednesday, the Atlanta-based airline announced that revenue fell by $2 billion in March due to the spread of COVID-19 and that it would make significant capacity reductions with a 70 per cent system-wide pullback planned until demand starts to recover.

Later last week, the company announced that it would ground some 300 planes in response to the virus' impact.

“Basically what they're trying to do, and I'm talking every airline now, United Airline, American Airlines, Jet Blue, most of them they've been offering voluntary leave. So that means go on leave, but it's unpaid. Now, there's talk of them offering us a percentage of what we would normally get to stay home because they don't want to take the route of just laying off people because once this blows off the demand is going to go back up. At least, that is what they are expecting,” the Delta employee shared.

“It's widely known that for the months of May and June some of the airlines are saying that they are going to cut flights — so at Delta 40 per cent at United 50 per cent. As it relates to that everybody is worried about potentially getting furloughed from their jobs, myself included. I'll be very honest, I'm concerned but the CEO (chief executive officer) has taken a six-month pay cut just to try and keep jobs. So it's stressful, to be honest but I'm confident that we'll pull through,” the pilot said.

South Florida-based Spirit Airlines, in a letter to employees Wednesday, announced that it would further reduce its April schedule, removing 20 per cent of flying. The airline said for May, it would remove 25 per cent of flying from its schedule.

“Although none of these changes is expected to be permanent, we don't yet know how long this crisis will last. In the meantime, we're working to continue serving our guests at all unrestricted destinations, even if it calls for less than daily service,” the letter read.

A flight attendant employed to the company told the Observer said while activities at work appear to be business, as usual, many are worried about job safety in the coming months.

“I, too, have concerns about job safety but as far as I see my company is trying their best to reassure us as well as to find ways around job cuts. There has been no mention of it or layoffs at this time and they are working extensively with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) on ways around layoffs currently,” she said.

Her colleague who also spoke was cavalier about the airline's operations and was not overly concerned about job cuts.

“I know other airlines are cutting back tremendously. I know like Delta is grounding like 300 planes and another that I can't remember is laying off like 90 per cent of their employees but as far as I know for now my airline is not laying off anyone and everything is just going as usual. We're just cancelling some flights but that's just going to be for next month,” she shared.

She said her only concern now is a recent policy drafted by the airline which forbids crew members from wearing protective gear.

“I'm not OK with this. We are at the forefront of the company; we meet everyone every day. We're stuck in a metal tube for four, five hours pending and we have to speak with people, serve them, attend to them whatever [so] not being able to wear protective gear is a big concern for me and that's why I've been trying to not work as much.

“It's scary. Here in America, they're not taking it as seriously as they are in other countries. In Jamaica you see where the Government is proactive and whatever. Here in America, there's even a case with a Jet Blue passenger; after he landed he told them that he had the virus and they had to ban him from flying with them for life. So I'm not comfortable with that,” she noted.

The Observer also interviewed a transportation security administration (TSA) officer who said while traffic at the airport where he works “has been virtually cut in half” he had little concern about losing his job.

“I have none whatsoever,” the officer said when asked if he felt he was at risk of losing his job.

“Our workforce hasn't been cut in half and that's because there's always stuff for us to do here. So in terms of me thinking about I'm going to be home and not getting paid I'm not worried about that and If it goes that far t and I have to be at home I will be paid,” he said.

At the same time, he said he is not certain that the measures taken by the US Government alone will safeguard against him and colleagues contracting the virus.

He explained that while officers must wear protective gear and must sanitise equipment and travellers are often cautious, he is not certain that this is enough.

The Associated Press last Monday reported that at least six TSA officers had tested positive for COVID-19 and dozens were in self-quarantine as the disease swept through the agency critical to the safety of US aviation.

“I'm 50/50 on that (contracting the virus). The measures that they take are very good but outside of work you've got to also protect yourself. So, on a personal note for me, I went ahead and got myself tested just to make sure I'm not going to work and passing on the virus,” he said.

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