‘I’ve never felt such silence’ — What it’s like to work at an airport right now

(CNN) — Gaëlle Simon, a check-in and boarding agent at Brussels Airport, Belgium, used to feel lucky to work at an airport.

“It’s such a big and loving family,” Simon tells CNN Travel. “Everyone feels connected with each other. Even with the passengers. Each day you come across so many beautiful people and stories in an airport. I never came home without something to tell.”

But the past nine months have turned Simon’s job upside down — working in an airport during a pandemic has stretched that family to breaking point.

As with the rest of the world, air travel in Europe has slumped drastically because of the coronavirus. Due to lack of demand, Simon, who is employed by a baggage handling company at Brussels Airport, has spent most days “sitting at home worrying about everything.” Her work has dwindled to about five days a month.

“When I have to work a shift, it’s not that fun as it used to be,” says Simon.

Instead, she says her normal tasks have become dominated by trying to stay on top of the complicated entry regulations that now vary from country to country. Simon and her colleagues have to constantly check which places require negative Covid tests, which are closed, which are open, which require visas, or which have exceptions for certain travelers.

Little wonder Simon is regularly confronted by stressed, frustrated and confused passengers.

“These rules can change every day,” she says. “Our supervisor tries to update us every chance she gets. But still then it’s hard to do our work properly.”

And there’s the constant worry of contracting Covid while at work.

“We meet 1,000 different people a day from all countries all over the world. Me and my colleagues are scared we take the virus home to our families.”

Adding to her anxieties is a feeling of abandonment, shared by many in the travel industry as restrictions grind it to a halt.

“The advice is always: don’t go on a holiday due to Covid! But they forget we have jobs too and we also need to pay our bills. Not to mention the difficult work environment we have to work in lately… it’s a mess.”

The experience of airport workers across the globe varies — each nation has reacted to Covid-19 differently and has different regulations in place — plus, air travel is on the rise in certain places and pretty much nil in others.

But one thing that unites airport workers wherever they’re based is that they’re on the frontline — watching the travel industry change in front of their eyes, trying to hold onto a job as many are furloughed, placed on reduced hours or left unemployed — and trying to stay safe in the face of uncertainty.

On the frontline in Texas

Passengers walk through the United Airlines terminal at George Bush Intercontinental Airport on May 11, 2020 in Houston, Texas

Passengers at the United Airlines terminal at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas in May 2020.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Teresa McClatchie works as a contractor for United Airlines at George Bush International Airport in Houston, Texas.

McClatchie has worked at the airport for four years. Pre-pandemic she was a ticketing agent — responsible for greeting the passengers, weighing their bags and checking their boarding passes. When Covid-19 hit, United downsized ground crew in Houston and McClatchie was moved to work as an escalator attendant.

From April to August, there were very few passengers, McClatchie tells CNN, but the arrival of fall and the holiday season has seen scores of travelers return.

“It was just wall-to-wall passengers as if there was no pandemic, nothing going on,” says McClatchie of the Thanksgiving week.

“Our management’s all excited: ‘Oh, it’s like before.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s like before, but why the hell are they traveling?’ We are in a pandemic. And it’s just — I mean, really heavy traffic for that week. And Christmas is going to be the same.”

McClatchie says passengers transiting through Houston Airport don’t always have their faces covered. She says airport workers have been told not to tell passengers to put their masks on — her managers at United advised that any discrepancies will be dealt with when travelers get to the gate.

McClatchie spends her shift stationed by the escalator — available to answer questions from passengers, with no screen separating her from the travelers. She places a chair in front of her to encourage social distancing, but says passengers will often come around it.

“They still act like the chair’s not there,” she sighs.

“We meet 1,000 different people a day from all countries all over the world. Me and my colleagues are scared we take the virus home to our families.”

Gaëlle Simon, check-in and boarding agent at Brussels Airport, Belgium

Despite taking precautions, McClatchie is extremely concerned about contracting the virus, and anxious about the financial impact of her reduced hours.

“Some of [my colleagues] are getting 20 hours, I myself have been reduced down to 32 hours,” she says. “So that puts a monkey wrench in my bills and trying to get the bills paid. And just last week, the lights were off. So, I had to take my cell phone money and pay the light bill. And then today I had to deal with the cell phone being off.”

McClatchie says United Airlines management doesn’t inform her or fellow workers when a colleague has contracted Covid. The airline did not respond directly to this claim. The United States does not have a track and trace app to alert people when they’ve been in contact with someone who has since tested positive.

In a statement to CNN, United Airlines said: “The health and well being of our 100,000 employees across the globe is our highest priority. This crisis continues to have a very profound and personal impact on all of our hard-working teammates.”

The airline added that it was providing proper PPE to employees, including masks, gloves and hand sanitizer and that United-operated facilities at George Bush Intercontinental Airport were sprayed with antimicrobial spray each day. United also said employees undergo mandatory daily temperature screening.

The airline added that it was in regular communication with workers and union representatives and had incorporated feedback into safety and cleaning processes.

For its part, Houston Airport System said in a statement: “Everyone is required to wear a mask inside George Bush Intercontinental Airport. This is a city requirement. If anyone does not have a mask, our team is giving away masks, free of charge, at terminal entrances. We encourage everyone to come and get a free mask.”

The airport also added that it had “implemented dozens of enhanced safety measures throughout our terminals which includes increased hand sanitizer stations and deep cleanings of high touch-point areas.”

McClatchie says passenger behavior has also been worse during the pandemic, as travelers get angry when airport lounges and other amenities are out of action.

She deals with the stress by making the most of her breaks — hiding out in the bathroom for some alone time or downloading with colleagues.

McClatchie and her coworkers have also been helping one another out when money is tight.

“We’ve just been bouncing back and forth, shifting and rotating money around to each other,” she says. “If somebody finds out, okay this place is offering rental assistance, we just pass on the information.”

There’s a misconception, says McClatchie, that working in an airport is glamorous. To her that’s laughable: she says she’s paid $9 an hour and other colleagues doing different jobs at Houston earn less.

The only bright spots in recent months, she says, have been when McClatchie is reunited with the frequent travelers she’s befriended over her years working at the airport. Many of them stayed home for months and have only recently returned to the skies.

They ask what how she’s doing when they spot her at the escalator and catch up.

From ticketing to cargo

Budapest-cargo

Workers unload boxes of PPE from an airplane arriving in Budapest, Hungary from China, back in April 2020.

KAROLY ARVAI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In Budapest, Hungary, check-in and boarding agent Kata — who prefers her last name not be printed — also switched roles when the pandemic hit.

Kata previously worked as an airport ticketing agent, checking the passengers’ boarding passes and supervising boarding at departure gate. She says she loved putting a smile on passengers’ faces and helping them on their way.

When Budapest began responding to Covid-19 in March and passenger travel ground to a halt, Kata was offered a role handling packages with PPE arriving from China.

Kata was grateful to have a job still earning her normal salary. Other colleagues went to work in administration roles for another company or were furloughed.

But her new role wasn’t easy.

“It was very hard because I am 55 kilos, and sometimes we had boxes which had 30 kilos inside the box,” she says.

Kata worked in cargo for a few months, before being reinstated to her ticketing role from June until the end of August, as Europe opened up and travel tentatively resumed.

“Everyone is sad, everyone is scared what will happen, no one wants to be sick, everyone wants to keep their job. ”

Kata, check in and boarding agent at Budapest Airport, Hungary

But in September, Hungary closed its borders again as Covid cases started to rise. Kata’s employers went into liquidation and a new company took over.

“Now I’m at another company with almost the same people, doing the same job,” she says.

She’s back in ticketing, but with borders still closed there are few flights. Only a handful of airlines are operating flights from Budapest right now.

“It’s very hard because it’s exhausting,” Kata says. “Sometimes we only have two flights per day, one at 6 a.m. and one at 5 p.m. In between, we prepare the next flights. We check the destinations, and what passengers need to enter.”

Like Gaëlle Simon at Brussels Airport, Kata says dealing with the different country’s requirements for entry is tricky, and can lead to angry passengers.

Kata says she and her colleagues were provided with masks and she feels her employer has “tried to do the best.”

But now, as Europe is hit by a second wave, she says several of her coworkers have fallen ill with Covid.

Like McClatchie and her coworkers in Texas, Kata and her colleagues in Budapest try to look after one another.

“We try to help each other and try to support because it’s really hard for everyone,” she says. “Because everyone is sad, everyone is scared what will happen, no one wants to be sick, everyone wants to keep their job. And we are sad for the people who are at home with the sickness. And I don’t know what we can do for each other, but we try to help, we ask if we can help.”

Kata wears her mask, washes her hands, uses hand sanitizer — and her company have assigned each employee to a “bubble of co-workers” to minimize unnecessary contact.

“I think they do the best they can do in this situation, because the airport is the most dangerous place for this right now, except for hospitals of course.”

View from Asia

Joshua Wu works for one of the main airlines in Taiwan as ground staff at Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport. His role includes assisting passengers at the gates with boarding and disembarking, and handling check-in and transfer at the airport’s transfer counter.

Wu is also a ramp coordinator, it’s his job to make sure everything’s on the airplane before it disembarks — including catering trollies and loading equipment.

He also closes airplane cabin doors before takeoff, sometimes posting clips of this on his Instagram feed.

Wu has continued to do the same role throughout the pandemic, but some of his colleagues, he says, have switched to admin jobs.

“Since the number of passengers plummeted […] we don’t need much manpower now,” he tells CNN Travel.

The biggest difference in his day to day, Wu says, is the atmosphere at Taoyuan International Airport.

“Seriously it has changed a lot. I’ve worked here for six years at this airport, never felt such silence before. It was always bustling with noise and crowded before the pandemic.”

Wu says passengers he’s encountered have been vigilant about virus safety measures. Face masks were commonplace in many Asian countries pre-Covid-19, but passengers are taking other precautions too.

“Since the pandemic, passengers has become much more aware of prevention measures. They keep social distance and prevent from chatting when they line up for boarding,” he says. “Some passengers not only wear masks but also goggles and protective clothing. They even give up inflight meals to not increase the risks of being affected.”

For this reason, Wu thinks traveling during the pandemic is “okay.”

“People can’t always stay home,” he reasons.

But while Wu loves his job — he’s a big aviation fan, and seeing airplanes take off and land daily is always a thrill — and feels supported by his employer, he’s still conscious that he’s on the front line.

“There’s high risk of getting affected by passengers coming from different countries,” he says.

Wu suggests the only way aviation workers will feel safe, and the travel industry can properly recover, is with a successful vaccine program.

The key in the meantime, he says, is staying positive and waiting it out.

His words are echoed by Kata, in Budapest, who issues a plea for “everyone to be patient and try to keep the rules and try to survive and try to be still happy.”

She stresses that she loves to travel too and is sad that she’s currently unable to.

“Just be patient and try to survive,” she says.