DALLAS — Even with only a handful of passengers on many of her flights, every cough or sneeze gets Darlene Sain’s attention.

Sain, a 23-year flight attendant at Southwest Airlines, said a passenger coughing in the front row of a recent flight caught icy stares from nearly everyone on the sparsely crowded Boeing 737 jet.

“The first thing you think is that they should start wearing a mask,” she said. “But that’s not fair. It’s allergy season. I sneeze because I walk by someone with strong perfume in the grocery store.”

Even as thousands of airline workers take voluntary time off or even early retirement, there are still thousands more left exposed at Southwest and American airlines and dealing with strangers every day in a world changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

When can we travel again? Experts (including Rick Steves) weigh in

Leaders at American and Southwest are keeping the planes flying, not only to ensure that the airlines stay solvent, but also because they say jets are delivering essential supplies to needed regions. They’re also shuttling doctors and researchers as well as people trying to get back home to see loved ones.

Three airline workers, including Sain, spoke about the eeriness of working in the aviation industry today. Others, warned by employers not to speak publicly during the COVID-19 crisis, share similar tales of anxiety, mixed with a sense of duty not only to passengers, but to keep working to help their employers.

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Airline workers were among the first to raise alarms over the risk of COVID-19 when it was only an issue in China. American Airlines’ pilots and flight attendants wanted the carrier to more aggressively shut down routes to mainland China and Hong Kong, followed by flights to South Korea and Italy.

Now with the time for international containment passed, airline workers such as Sain are still in the air, although working in a much different capacity than just a few months ago.

There are 750,000 airline workers in the United States, usually serving about 2.5 million passengers a day this time of year. But that number dropped to its lowest point in decades last Wednesday, with only 94,931 passengers flying in the U.S., according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Sain has moved out of her home in Richwood, Texas, and into the apartment of another flight attendant. Her adult daughter who lives with her fell ill with “chemical-induced pneumonia” last fall from vaping.

“I’m staying away from my daughter because I have to fly and I am afraid to give (the virus) to her,” Sain said.

That’s only the beginning of the changes in what had been Sain’s workdays. Aboard planes, flight attendants are no longer doing food and beverage service. Customer service is limited to pre-takeoff announcements and picking up garbage.

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“I have to say that most of us can’t stand it,” she said. “Southwest has us so conditioned to give the best customer service, it’s hard for us to just sit down for the whole flight.”

Skipping snack service and other tasks also makes flights seem longer to flight attendants who are used to the routines that pass the time on one- to five-hour trips, Sain said.

Several of her fellow flight attendants have ended up in quarantine because of exposure to COVID-19, and she’s heard of others who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus itself.

Now every time she steps off a plane, walks out of the airport and gets in her car, the first thing she does is wipe herself and her belongings with disinfecting wipes.

“I don’t want to bring any of that with me,” Sain said.

From cheery to social distancing

Tammy Woods is a regular in Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport’s international terminal when things go bad. As a customer service coordinator for American Airlines, it’s her job to provide assistance when flights are delayed or canceled or other problems arise that frustrate customers.

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D36 is one of her gates, and it’s typically where a daily flight from Beijing arrives and departs. She was there when COVID-19, then known simply as the coronavirus, was isolated to China and there was paranoia over potential spread to the United States.

“The human part of me is fearful, just like our entire country is,” said Woods, who’s also president of Communications Workers of America Local 6001, which represents about 10,000 gate and ramp workers at DFW. “I have specialized training that I have to remain calm.”

Woods said people are afraid of flying on airplanes and being in airports in such close contact with strangers from all over the country. She said her demeanor on the job can help calm down passengers or raise anxiety.

“If there is something going on at a gate, you cannot lose your head,” Woods said. “You have to remain calm and cool.”

Woods, too, has family at home. Her son was sent home from Texas A&M University because of the pandemic. She drove to College Station recently to help him pick up his stuff since he won’t be returning this semester.

At DFW, she’s helped coordinate a mask-making effort with the union to give some sort of personal protective equipment to workers who don’t have it. American Airlines has started a similar effort as well at DFW since it is difficult to find masks on the open market.

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“We care about each other at American Airlines,” Woods said. “Our company must survive, there is no other thought otherwise. But it’s going to be a rough ride. There’s going to be turbulence.”

Heading back into the danger zone

Southwest Airlines flight attendant Michelle Ryder found herself under quarantine in mid-March. She came in contact with someone with COVID-19 while visiting her mother at a hospital in Charlotte, N.C., after back surgery.

Quarantine, she said, has been monotonous.

Ryder didn’t miss work because she was one of the thousands of workers who had taken the unpaid voluntary time off program. She plans to return at the end of May. She hopes the worst of the threat has passed by then.

She has stayed in contact with friends at Southwest and at American, which has one of its biggest hubs in Charlotte.

“My concern is what this is going to do to jobs and the economy,” said Ryder, a 15-year flight attendant at Southwest. “I feel very fortunate to be with the airline I’m with, but there is a lot of worry.”

The experience teaches Ryder that while flight attendants are at risk, so is everyone else. She wants to go back to work so other flight attendants won’t be burdened.

“Hopefully, if everybody’s predictions about this are correct, the peak will be passed and we’ll be flattened out by the time I head back,” she said. “Because when I hear from flight attendants, it’s horrible. I can’t imagine working like this.”

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