It’s that time of year – the stocking are hung by the chimney with care, brightly-colored decorations and lights adorn homes and trees…and everyone is getting sick. In fact, I’m sick as a dog while I write this. All I want to do is stay in bed all day with a massive cup of steaming hot tea, hair a mess, binge-watching The Walking Dead. But I can’t, and that’s because I have to go to the airport. It’s only for a mandatory work training session this time, but it wouldn’t be unusual for me to be heading off to fly in my current state, nose redder than Rudolph on a bender.
In that respect, I’m far from alone. Flight attendants get sick time we are permitted to take, but it can be very dangerous to use. We get the same amount of sick time as, say, an average office worker, but if we happen to fall ill over time periods where staffing might be more thinly stretched, the sick days count as double. Many airlines assign points to certain days or time periods, making sick calls count more heavily against us when staffing might be spread more thinly. And as one would assume, our close interaction with the public makes us more vulnerable to getting sick. So get a mild cold earlier in the year just to have The Big One hit any time over the holiday season – when everyone gets sick – now you’re facing disciplinary action. It can happen that easily.
It’s a tough call for airlines, because assigning different point value to certain days or times of year prevents less honest people from regularly using sick time to secure holidays off as opposed to paying their dues until their seniority builds. If everyone were able to pull that trick, it would result in tons of canceled flights or pulling senior crews to work them for much higher wages (as American is doing with their pilots right now). Unfortunately, cold and flu season coincides with holidays, so legitimately unwell pilots and flight attendants feel uncomfortable racking up points if they must call out from a trip or two to take care of themselves. Also, it isn’t out of the ordinary to wake up on a layover to find you’re feeling like you’ve been run over by a truck and now your options are to either operate the flight back home or to call out sick in a non-base city and probably delay or potentially cancel the flight, drawing the ire of your company, passengers and crew. The choice is usually very clear – suffer through it for everyone’s sake.
All of this is even harder on the new hires, who are on probation and more closely watched. Worse yet, they tend to have tougher schedules, working unnatural hours and often flying multiple legs a day, which does a number on the immune system. When sick time stays on the record for a rolling year, getting sick twice can lead to some tough decisions. And to make matters worse, most airlines don’t accept doctor notes, so there’s no excusing anyone who happens to have bad luck health-wise.
Flight attendants and pilots alike feel immense pressure to fly while sick. The obvious answer to increase staffing over valuable time periods would be to offer pay incentives (not every airline, for instance, offers an increased pay rate over Christmas), but airlines, their investors and passengers would be less than pleased with that scenario, since it would increase fares. (Wall Street has made their views on crew wages very clear.) This, then, leaves us at a stalemate.
So, after this training session, I plan to do just what I was looking forward to – rest, hydration and bad television: the trifecta of healing. All I can do is take care of myself while I’m infirm and hope to nip it in the bud before my next trip. But if I’m not, it’ll unfortunately be a tough call as to what to do, since Christmas is on the horizon and these are high-point days for sick calls. I hope it doesn’t come to flying sick, but it’s just the unenviable position myself and my colleagues are put in this time of year. Pass the echinacea and wish me luck!