Not only is the Coronavirus ravaging lives, families and industry, but it caused a black hole of an existential come-to-Jesus moment for me last week after some unexpected work news. Read on, but be warned: There is some serious vulnerability in the paragraphs ahead.
The outbreak and expanding reach of the Coronavirus has produced devastating loss for the family members of those who have died and those living in quarantine, infected with the virus. It has also begun taking what will surely be a great toll on the economy. Not all industries will suffer directly. But when big ships start sinking, does not the oil and debris float on to affect all the others? One arena of the economy that, for obvious reasons, is already seeing an effect is travel. The most difficult part of any health epidemic is containment, and air travel has been a major contributor to the spread of COVID-19. The acknowledgement of this fact, combined with the resulting anxiety of the traveling public has caused some major disruptions in the industry. Flight schedules are being slashed and certain regions have become no-go zones. Airlines have announced spending cuts and flight attendants and pilots worldwide brace for what will be an impactful change in operations.
In some ways, I guess I should have anticipated this.
“It’s a volatile industry,” I’ve heard people say.
“I’m just looking for something with more security,” fellow FAs have explained their reasoning for leaving the biz.
And I hear what they’re saying. I’ve had friends and acquaintances who had been furloughed two, three, six times by major airlines and then called back later to reclaim their jobs. After 9/11 the aviation industry found itself in shambles, and crewmembers, let go, looking for something else to do. But these tales seemed like distant stories of other people’s problems.
My airline has never furloughed. Since I was hired six years ago, I have seen nothing but exponential growth. Class after class of new flight attendants graduated and joined the ranks, while new city after new city was added to our roster of “Where we fly.” It seemed like the cash cow that would keep on giving. To be honest, I’ve never thought much about the whole job insecurity thing.
Until last Wednesday.
I spent allllllll day Wednesday—any free time amidst my fourteen hours on a plane, between three flights—working on my April schedule. Normally I would have waited until the 6th of the month, but for some reason, I betrayed my last-minute M.O. and decided to complete it early. That night at 8pm, shortly after stepping off the plane, I received a company email stating that all bids for April would have to be resubmitted. Our flight schedule would be cut by 5%, meaning there will be less flight hours to go around for our large workforce. The trips that were originally offered in the “bid packet” would be different, or may not even exist. The corporate communication went on to say that hiring of frontline crew would cease. That more time off would be offered for those who wished to take it. That unnecessary spending would be cut.
The initial annoyance of having just wasted my ENTIRE EFFING DAY hit first but was quickly overtaken by this weird sense of panic that crept up the back of my neck and made my mind race. Suddenly all those things I’d heard about industry volatility and about job insecurity seemed…real.
I’d never thought much about the whole job insecurity thing.
If we believe this 5% cut will be enough help us weather the storm, then there is nothing to worry about. But what if it isn’t? What if the virus keeps spreading before a remedy can be found—taking lives and livelihoods with it?
I feel like a dick even discussing this devastating virus as it relates to my employment because there are lives at stake. People are sitting in quarantine away from their friends and family, making them in many cases, more susceptible to COVID-19. And don’t even get me started on this buffoon administration’s handling of the crisis. But this post is about something different, and for today I’m going to leave the virus talk to the healthcare professionals. (THANK YOU, by the way, for putting yourself in the line of fire for literally every disease, virus, epidemic, in order to care for others.)
Will these preliminary measures be enough to weather the storm?
Imagine standing on the deck of a ship with a big hole punched in its side. That is what this post is about. Not knowing whether we can patch the problem effectively, or if we’re putting bandaids and duct tape as a fix, water continuing to seep through until the whole thing goes down. I’m not in a need-to-know position, and the answer to this core question is really outside my expertise.
I do know that my airline is in a better position than many others because we don’t fly to a majority of the heavily affected areas. But the outlook is grim for the industry as a whole. Many of my brethren at other, bigger airlines are feeling this uncertainty that’s been on my mind, but in something like ten-fold.
And if the big dogs do go down, those major international carriers, is my small-but-growing airline really going to be in a position to hold ourselves up? To weather the storm, if the storm ends up being long and drawn out?
The thought struck: What am I going to do?
I love my job, the travel benefits and flexibility of schedule, how it allows me to live a sort of “alternative lifestyle.” I certainly don’t want to lose it. But what if my company for some reason couldn’t weather the storm, or if hanging in there meant letting go of a portion of the workforce? Could I find myself on the chopping block? I have no rose-colored glasses about this biz and I know and accept the fact that I’m completely expendable. A cog in the wheel.
Would I try to get hired at another airline? An unlikely option given the fact that many other airlines will be hit far worse by the reverberating effects of Covid19 than my own. But if it were an option, I don’t know that I would. Starting over, at the bottom. Maybe of a much bigger employment pool. Four-eight weeks of training and crappy trips and working holidays and weekends again. Being at the beck and call of Crew Scheduling. Being woken from a slumber at 3am to report to the airport two hours later for an unexpected three-day trip. And besides the discomforts of reserve, which to be honest I didn’t mind so much when I did them the first time ’round, the bigger thing to think about is the question of whether I want to be a “lifer”.
I took this job thinking I would try it for a year. You know, while I “figured out what’s next”. Six years later, here I am, typing this blog post from the jumpseat—in very close proximity to a bathroom, I might add. I didn’t expect to be here so long. But I stayed past year one for the travel benefits and somewhere in year two I fell completely in love with the job, the people, and the lifestyle. The problem with trying to escape the aviation industry is that every year, maybe every month, your job gets better and better. Your pay goes up, you hold better trips, since everything is seniority based, you start getting the days off you want, and way more of them. And boom, five years in and the job is night-and-day from those first several months in the beginning of eating pb&j and earning paychecks that would make your paperboy laugh. Having this job has allowed me to meet so many incredible people, ones I consider life-long friends and kindred spirits. I’ve been to places I never thought I’d visit, and I’ve spent many a “workday” hanging by the pool, hiking a dope ass mountain, or having beers and fish tacos with my crew. It’s hard to imagine ever leaving. Start showing up somewhere—to the same place—every day?
It struck me that all this time I was supposed to be figuring out these big questions, I’d been doing something else:
It’s been easy to just stay here, going with it, doing what I’m doing (and what I’m loving doing) with no real regard for those bigger questions: What do I want to do with my life? Is this my forever career? Do I still want to be doing this ten years from now? After I become a mom?
If this somehow all stopped, if I found myself separated from my company, what would I do? The act of seeking employment with a second airline feels more like a decision, more committal. (And we all know how much I love commitment.) Would it make me a lifer? And do I want that? Do I want to be doing this when I’m 60? Or now, for any other carrier? Will I be able to lay my head and sleep soundly and face myself in the mirror if I never segue into something more “important”, more respected, more challenging, a better use for my brain cells, which I promise are still very active?
And then the harder question: What else would I do?
Have these last six years of letting education and skills grow rusty made me un-hireable? I’ve done a bit of marketing (badly) and content production, some news and entertainment writing, and some administrative work, which I wasn’t terribly fond of. But that whole entry-level job post-college thing? I never did it. Could I survive starting there now? Financially and/or mentally? In what industry would I even be seeking employment?
It struck me that all this time I was supposed to be figuring out these big questions, I’d been doing something else: Coasting. I’ve gotten so comfortable in this life (which I really freaking love) traveling and meeting people, having fun, that I never came up with a fully-formed plan or exit strategy.
Let me be clear: This is a totally legitimate way to make a living and you wouldn’t believe the number of people who return to flying after leaving the industry in search of normalcy and security.
But, somehow I thought I’d be doing more—thought I was doing more—until that email kickstarted my existential moment.
I’m not doing nothing. Far from it. I have passion projects, this blog for one. And I’ve been working on several other writing projects along the way. I’m two classes from earning a second Bachelor’s Degree, because my employer subsidizes education and I think that’s worth taking advantage of. I became a serious runner over these six years and can now officially call myself a marathoner. Empezé aprendiendo español, I started learning Spanish, and I’m pretty dedicated to becoming fluent.
All of these varied interests keep me sharp and busy and on the road to contentment. But what I guess I hadn’t realized, or hadn’t admitted, was that I haven’t fully committed to anything. And I’ve given my all to nothing. These things are important. They’re the passion, the fire inside, what makes a person tick and feel fulfillment. Yet, I’ve been working them at about a 40% effort level. And, sadly, even less for those endeavors for which I feel the strongest passion and pull.
Every wakeup call is an opportunity.
I fucked up. Slipped into comfort, fell in and out of love, moved from one big idea to another, never seeing any to full fruition. Thought a lot and acted too little—a signature of my personality for which I’ll use my zodiac sign to hold a portion of the blame. The thought that was haunting me those first days after my company email was repetitive and deafening and scary as hell.
I’m wasting my life.
I only get one, and at best I’m enjoying it superficially and at worst I’m squandering it.
Harsh, right? But I got into that spiral of questions and anxieties and found myself wondering whether, despite having a great time, I was somehow doing this life thing all wrong. Once my eyes were so rudely ripped open to the possibility of starting over, and to the wave of uncertainty I’d been surfing along, it was difficult not to think about all the things I’m not doing, about the things I am doing that I’m not putting enough effort into, and the possibility that a lot of the enjoyment I’m getting out of this life is surface-level, maybe even selfish. I travel, I have fun, I live by my own rules. But am I giving enough? Doing enough to help others? Being the best daughter, sister, aunt, friend that I can be? Am I living my ideals?
These are the questions that matter and the things that keep me up at night more so than any job could.
At the crux: Does the person you are on the outside match the person you feel you are inside?
I wonder if this is something we all ask ourselves, or do some of us inherently know the answer without having to ask? Is this something I keep coming back to because the answer is never quite what I hope for it to be?
I didn’t expect for this feeling to crop up on a Wednesday night after a long, long day at work. Much less, from something out of my company inbox. But I read between the corporate speak in that email and the message was glaring: Nothing is guaranteed. Of course, we know this already, but we forget sometimes when things are good, and the sun is shining, and the sea is breathing in gentle waves.
I feel okay about the whole thing now, mostly because I know what I’ve always known; that everything will work out just fine in the end. I’ve slept (a lot) on it, and I’ve mulled it over in my brain in all different ways. I could be far off, but I think that between my airline’s size and footprint and my level of seniority within the company, I personally won’t have to go job hunting any time soon. Good fortune in my timing and in becoming part of a small but rapidly expanding company. Still, the questions that haunted me for the first two days linger. I realized that I have been doing a lot of coasting. And once you know it, you can’t un-know it.
But, rather than the bleak, black hole I know this post started to sound like, I am taking this on with positivity. As an opportunity. To redirect, to double down on those passion projects, to grow some balls and go for the things I want, to open myself more to others, to do some soul searching and to try—I mean really try—to make the inside and the outside match.
Wakeup calls can be startling, and boy oh boy this one was. But you know, it feels pretty good to be awake.
Thanks for reading, and I apologize if this sent anyone else into an unnecessary spiral of life-questioning. Happy Monday and I hope you’re all staying healthy, washing your hands, and doing all you can to be the person you want to be.