• middleofalovestory

LOSING MY WINGS

The termination came in waves. The first ones to go were the juniors, the ones who were only in the company for three years or less. Not all of them were laid off, but almost all. We felt sorry for them, of course, but it was only natural right? The last ones in should be the first ones out. Or so we thought.

I guess it was bound to happen, sooner or later.


March 11th 2020--the day my world stood still. This was when I first heard about Italy shutting their airport down and closing borders. My company's flights to Milan, all canceled. I was on my way to operate a flight to Jakarta--looking forward to a meal of salted egg prawns and truffle fried rice, then maybe go for a massage afterward.


All my colleagues were talking about the coronavirus, comparing statistics and facts—during the briefing, during the flight, on the shuttle bus to the hotel. Some took it seriously, others made light of it. I was comically amused to find the supermarket aisle stocked with toilet paper; I bought some vitamins, too. Just in case, I thought.


After I got back from Jakarta, I had a refresher class for A330 safety. I was already finished with my B737 safety course and First Aid class. Then I would operate flights to Manchester, then London, and my last flight for the month's roster would be to Bangkok.

London--Platform 9 and 3/4

I never got to do my London and Bangkok flights. My Manchester layover would be my last. This isn't the first virus we've faced in the aviation industry. Avian influenza, Ebola, MERS— they all came, and they all went. There were a few memos from the office, written reminders really, on washing your hands and basic hygiene. No flights were cancelled. We weren't even allowed to wear masks on those high-risk flight destinations. In fact, if you reported sick during those days, they'd be suspicious and assume you were faking it just to get out of work.

All my colleagues were talking about the coronavirus, comparing statistics and facts—during the briefing, during the flight, on the shuttle bus to the hotel. Some took it seriously, others made light of it.

But last March, when one by one, flights were being canceled--not just for us but all around the world, city by city, country by country--everyone was closing their doors. The tourism and aviation industry came to a sudden and complete halt. Still, we had hope, we thought: this too, shall pass. It'll go back to normal soon enough. Best to enjoy the little “vacation” and time off, get a chance to reset our body clocks.


The next few weeks went by in a blur. Almost everyone I knew turned to binge-watching on Netflix, or to catching up on books they've been meaning to read but never had the time to. Or just SLEEP—every flight attendant's favorite activity. Some took up painting, some played the ukulele, some even took up boudoir photography. Anything to occupy themselves during this unprecedented time. It wasn't just about keeping busy physically—it was more for our emotional and mental well-being. Being flight attendants, we were not used to being on the ground for long, we were getting cabin fever.

Rome--Fontana di Trevi
I began to debate internally whether I should resign, too. It's always better to leave than be left behind, right? But before I came to a decision, that choice was made for me.

About 90% of us expatriates were away from home, away from family, relatives, and friends. Only a handful had family here. For my sanity, I turned to baking. Normally, I'd only bake when there was an occasion, like a friend's birthday, or during the holiday season. I always used my busy flight roster as an excuse, and only baked whenever I had a particular craving. But now, I had the luxury of time to dust off my recipe journal and notes from pastry school. I could review the basics and learn new tricks (French macarons!). It felt good to be back in the kitchen as it was my happy place.


The termination came in waves. The first ones to go were the juniors, the ones who were only in the company for three years or less. Not all of them were laid off, but almost all. We felt sorry for them, of course, but it was only natural right? The last ones in should be the first ones out. Or so we thought.

Some took up painting, some played the ukulele, some even took up boudoir photography. Anything to occupy themselves during this unprecedented time. It wasn't just about keeping busy physically—it was more for our emotional and mental well-being.

Then came the Russian roulette. Most were seniors now, but there were juniors mixed in too. Random theories about age, or attendance records, or nationality, and even grades during training were widely circulated and discussed in chat groups among crew. Rumors brought impending gloom and high levels of anxiety every Thursday, as this was the last workday of the week here, when they would send out those dreaded, “Thank you for your service” emails. (This theory proved to be correct).

Among the mass terminations, the baking, the painting, and Netflix--we still had “work.” We still received regular emails about safety and service reminders that we were supposed to study and know by heart. Some of us even got emails from Grooming Officers, warning us that there'll be a weight check soon, and that we should be vigilant in staying "healthy." Some of us got called out to operate cargo or special repatriation flights. I did a class on COVID-19 regarding flight safety and food service, and I also did my refresher for B787 safety.

During the emotional rollercoaster that was and still is, this pandemic, this quarantine period—we only had each other. It didn't matter what our nationality was, nor what religion we practiced.
Switzerland--Ebenalp

What stopped coming regularly was our paychecks. We took an 80% pay cut for 3 months. And we thought that would be it, we suffered enough. They gave us a month of relief after, but then it was announced that we would suffer another 6 months more--this time receiving only 33% of our gross basic salaries. That was barely enough to cover the costs of living in this city. So, just like everywhere else, our favorite hobbies became mini online businesses. I won't even call it a “small business,” as it was on a much tinier scale. It certainly wasn't nearly enough to replace what was deducted from us. And anyway, I wasn't doing it for the money, I was doing it for my mental health. We constantly reminded ourselves to be grateful and appreciate that we still had jobs. This wasn't our country, after all. We were just expats.


During the emotional rollercoaster that was and still is, this pandemic, this quarantine period—we only had each other. It didn't matter what our nationality was, nor what religion we practiced. Filipina, Thai, Indian, Czech, Serbian, Slovakian, vegans, pescatarians, and meat-eaters—we were all on the same ship. And it was sinking. Every day, little by little, the water started to come in. It was this diverse support group that I turned to when I found out my sister got infected by the coronavirus.


But also baking--baking was my life vest. If my frustrations were focused on achieving perfect French macarons, then surely I wouldn't be in a constant state of frenzy, anxiety and depression. Whip, fold, macaronage, pipe, repeat. My sister was 6,603 kilometers away. What else could I do? Make mint chip macarons, her favorite ice cream flavor. In some small way, it made me feel less helpless.

I didn't know how to react, I was numb. In retrospect, I knew this was coming. It was bound to happen, sooner or later. It was all over the world, it wasn't just the aviation industry that was cutting jobs.

Our select population started becoming smaller and smaller. Others had their contracts ended after more than a decade of loyalty. For others, it was over two decades. Resignations also started to increase. Because, who was left? I avoided thinking of what post-pandemic flights would look like--would anyone from my diverse support group still be there? I've been in my company for almost nine years, so there was always a familiar and friendly face at work. I didn't want to feel alone during a layover, not knowing anyone else. I began to debate internally whether I should resign, too. It's always better to leave than be left behind, right? But before I came to a decision, that choice was made for me.

There it was, highlighted in red--the changes to my roster and the 'acknowledge' button that I was required to click. I stared at it. I don't know how much time had passed, but then my phone pinged--and there was the generic text message from my company reminding me to click the button.

I didn't know how to react, I was numb. In retrospect, I knew this was coming. It was bound to happen, sooner or later. It was all over the world, it wasn't just the aviation industry that was cutting jobs. It wasn't just happening to me, although it felt that way. Messages from colleague-friends and family started pouring in, offering support--but there were a few noticed absences too. Maybe they thought it would be awkward. Maybe they just didn't know what to say.


Theories spread that maybe this time around the selection was made due to health and medical concerns. Most of us on the list had suffered injuries from before and had to recover from surgeries; some came from maternity leave, while others had a long leave of absence from surviving cancer. Basically we were told, too many "unproductive days."

And it was sinking. Every day, little by little, the water started to come in. It was this diverse support group that I turned to when I found out my sister got infected by the coronavirus.

Just like that, I had my wings clipped. I was never going to fly anymore. I was never going to be assigned the position of R1 or R2 (the galley-in-charge for first or business class). I was never going to be scrutinized by the Grooming Officer for having a few strands of hair out of place. Or if my hat wasn't properly crooked over the right eyebrow. I also was never going to shop in Paris, or Manchester, or Milan while on layover anymore. I was never going to visit the farmers' markets in Munich or London. Or do my grocery shopping in Bangkok and Jakarta. Or attend the Christmas markets in Zurich or Frankfurt.

Ebenalp Seealpsee

Most of all, I was never going to work with my diverse support group of flight attendants anymore. We would never be all together, in the same city, at the same time. Most of us, if not all, would go our separate ways. My dysfunctional clique of Netflix-bingers and painters and bakers and dreamers--who had become almost like family, my home away from home, would disband.

Zurich--Bellevue Opera House

Still, we soldier on. Life goes on. The sun doesn't stop from setting or rising. The world continues to revolve. Sometimes, we experience a sense of loss or grief so great that you think your life ends--but it doesn't. I'm not sure if that's fair or not. It feels like it should end.

There is a peculiar sisterhood between us, almost like a sorority of sorts. We may fight and hate each other at times."We can hang out together at the layover, but I can't work with her on the flight," or vice versa, was a common phrase.

The past 9 months had me feel like I was already starring in some badly-written post-apocalyptic horror movie. It takes a lot of--I don't know if courage is the right word--but it takes a lot of it to pull yourself out of a dark place, mentally and emotionally, to keep yourself going, to get out of bed. To silence those voices in your head. And we rallied each other on, us expat flight attendants. There is a peculiar sisterhood between us, almost like a sorority of sorts. We may fight and hate each other at times."We can hang out together at the layover, but I can't work with her on the flight," or vice versa, was a common phrase. But in the end, we were there for each other.

We cheered for each other, we cried for each other, we defended each other. We listened to each others' life stories--also known as “jumpseat confessionals”--even though we just met at briefing an hour before (Some shared way too much information than I was comfortable with.) We kept each other company in strange cities, especially if we had a newbie with us on the flight. We drank together, we partied together, we shopped during sale season, and fought over the last green dress together.

This wasn't how I wanted to retire my wings. This wasn't how I thought it would end. I wanted maybe a year to prepare myself--to go on a few more adventures, to request more buddy flights together, to save more money. I didn't get to have a proper goodbye, this is what fate dealt me.

We shared secrets and traded tricks of the trade. We shared where to get the best eye cream or lipsticks, and which airport duty-free offered the best crew discount. We asked each other to buy stuff whenever the other would get the good layovers. We told each other to avoid that passenger seated on 2K who was getting too drunk for his own good. We banded together during the flight if we had a power-hungry purser abusing his/her authority.

Sometimes, we experience a sense of loss or grief so great that you think your life ends--but it doesn't. I'm not sure if that's fair or not. It feels like it should end.
Paris--Champs Elysees

We rolled our eyes together when that first officer asked for his third in-flight meal. Or when the captain tells you to set aside all the leftover French butter cause he was going to take it home with him after the flight. We attended seasonal festivals at layovers together, we climbed mountains together (though some voted to take the cable car instead). We took care of each other when one was sick, injured, or hospitalized. We celebrated birthdays and Christmases together. We acted as couriers, just so we could send some presents to family members back home.


This wasn't how I wanted to retire my wings. This wasn't how I thought it would end. I wanted maybe a year to prepare myself--to go on a few more adventures, to request more buddy flights together, to save more money. I didn't get to have a proper goodbye, this is what fate dealt me. I realize that it might even be more difficult for others who had this as their first job, fresh out of university. This wasn't my first job, nor was this my first job away from home either. But this is the longest I've stayed at a job, and it's painful to have to let go so abruptly.

I don't know what I'm going to do next. I don't know where I'll be a year from now. But I'll always be grateful for my past adventures and for the lessons I have learned along the way. They do say that it's not about the destination, but the journey that matters. I loathe that as cliché as that sounds, it turned out to be true.


I remember this excerpt from a beloved children's story:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don't much care where—”, said Alice.

“Then it doesn't matter which way you go,” replied the Cat.

“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you're sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”


After completing 1,530 flights, 757 days at layovers, 8,842 flight duty hours--a total of 8 years and 9 months--this is PGC 92636, signing out.

Story of International Flight Attendant, E. M. Winters

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