Notes & Essays

'The Pandemic Cut Off My Wings:' A Flight Attendant Tells Her Story

A flight attendant who used to travel the world for work finds reasons to appreciate being grounded.
IMAGE GISELLE CRUZ
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It’s 2:30 a.m. as I reach for my alarm, half-awake after a 14-hour slumber. I was recovering from a summer trip during my off days in a little-known city in Austria called Klagenfurt, about to fly to Brazil for work where it’s currently winter. The airport bus was set to pick me up at exactly 4:17 AM, and I needed to drag myself out of the bed for a trip that’s actually longer than the time that I’d been at home. Yes, I’m a flight attendant, and I travel the world for work.

So I turn the alarm clock off and was about to start my day when it hit me—it’s 8 a.m. and I wasn’t really going to the airport. I was dreaming. But it felt so real because just over a year ago, this was my reality. 

For the past 10 years I was constantly working in different time zones, thanks to being employed by one of the biggest airline companies in the world. The pandemic, however, has forced me to stay back home here in Manila. 

At the Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

Photo by Giselle Cruz.
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My heart is both happy and confused. Happy, because being home for more than 24 hours at a time used to be just something I wished for. I have Manila flights twice or thrice a month, but the most I usually get was two meals with my family before I needed to fly out again the next day. 

But I’m also really confused, because it’s not easy to suddenly become a homebody who has a work-from-home side hustle and routinely reads about the perfect soil for plants after I’ve led a globetrotting and spontaneous lifestyle for much of my career.  

Posing at Laguna Humantay, Peru

Photo by Giselle Cruz.

The dream job

See, a flight attendant’s routine is unique. We never work with the same set of crew and we almost never have the same work schedule. I could be packing bikinis and summer dresses on Monday, emptying my luggage on Wednesday, and then carrying coats and boots on Thursday. By Saturday, I could be in uniform all day operating a domestic flight somewhere in South Africa or Argentina, or I could be back in my home base in the Middle East, having brunch in a dress and stilettos, sipping mimosas with friends at a hotel that offers the best deal for airline crew. 

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I could be having breakfast in Paris and then eating at a restaurant in New York by dinnertime. If I happen to have three or four consecutive days off, I would often wake up, hop on a plane, and book a hotel en route to a new and often obscure city I haven’t been to. Then, I would either spend the next three days exploring or just relaxing on a balcony watching sunsets. 

At Macchu Pichu, Peru

Photo by Giselle Cruz.

My monthly schedule—the roster as we call it—holds my fate for the entire month. It’s given out by management and dictates which city in the world I’ll be in, who I’ll be with, how much I’ll earn and…spend. It’s mostly fixed for the most part, but we can request for flights to cities we want to visit, subject to management’s approval. We can also swap flights with other crew members through our private database and say “I’m giving away my London for Bali!” as if we owned the world.  

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Some request to fly together with friends or to attend festivals like Mardi Gras and Oktoberfest, while others want to fly to where they can have the best beer or the best hotel gym. I prefer to go to less-popular cities to either take my mom on a vacation or meet long-lost high school friends.

Posing with the locals at Malaga, Spain

Photo by Giselle Cruz.

Real hard work

Make no mistake, however, as being a flight attendant isn’t all fun and games; it’s hard, back-breaking work. On a typical flight, we prepare and serve food and drinks for at least 400 passengers and attend to each and every request. We have dozens of rules to enforce, among which is to not let passengers get drunk with free-flowing alcohol from take-off until landing. We can go from chit-chatting with passengers for half the entire flight time to delivering a baby at 38,000 feet. 

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At Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal

Photo by Giselle Cruz.

We deal with every kind of human there is, from royalty and VIPs who have their own security detail to refugees and laborers who have not used a toilet flush all their lives (all of whom I proudly treat equally.) And we encounter people with over 120 different nationalities daily, each with their own unique cultures, tendencies, and attitudes that we must cater to and serve with a smile. You can get shouted at by a customer for a simple inconvenience such as a slightly overcooked egg and be talking about Middle East politics and religion with another, all on the same flight. 

Oh, and there’s also about a thousand or so items, safety protocols, and other processes we need to memorize and check each and every flight to make sure that everyone reaches their destinations safely. You don’t want your oxygen mask to not work when you need them, do you?  

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A sunny day at the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele in Rome, Italy

Photo by Giselle Cruz.

An abrupt landing 

Despite the physical and mental toll our work entails, the lifestyle is certainly dynamic, fun, and addictive. While some do get tired of it and leave after a few years, it’s hard to turn your back on the words “travel the world.” I, for one, never wanted to leave. But the pandemic cut off my wings. 

Coming home for good felt like a cold shower after soaking in a hot tub. I got a shock that came with a feeling that took a while for both my mind and body to process. Surely, everyone lost something or, worse, someone, during this pandemic. But in my head, my loss was different. I didn’t just lose a job, I lost a lifestyle that I love along with all the perks that came with being a flight attendant. No more free plane tickets, no more free hotel stays, and no more never-ending vacations that are actually what we call work. 

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In St. Petersburg, Russia

Photo by Giselle Cruz.

Then there was the matter of readjusting to the country I was born in but have been away from. A lot can change in a decade, and the Philippines I returned to certainly did just that. I shockingly welcomed myself to youngsters Tiktok-ing on random streets and to conservative Pinoys now open to online dating, mostly due to pandemic restrictions.

And as much as I want to catch up with old friends, the pandemic has (rightfully so) made everyone extra cautious about face-to-face meetings. Some malls and bars that painted Manila are now either temporarily closed or permanently shut down.

At the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

Photo by Giselle Cruz.
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No place like home

But coming home after a decade of traveling, I began to realize, wasn’t all bad. In fact, it taught me there’s joy in stillness. While meetings with friends are few and far in between, reuniting with family and hearing their laughs and stories for more than just a few hours give me a warm feeling no vacation can replicate. The birthdays and occasions I missed all those years I’ve been away, I’m now able to attend (albeit with all the safety precautions and while fully vaccinated.) I can now see my nieces and nephews regularly and actually give them my gifts instead of having it shipped to them. And most of all, I can now be present as my parents grow old. 

For the first time in years, I feel grounded and rooted in one city where the people, language and culture do not change—and I’ve now embraced that, cheerfully. Who knows if I’ll ever have the chance to go back to my old job and resume my globetrotting ways after this pandemic? But while there’s so much that’s still unknown, for now, I’m glad that I no longer have to write things about home. Because I am home.

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