U.S. airlines have collectively received $35 billion in direct payroll support to keep thousands of surplus employees in paid employment despite the fact that their services simply aren’t required. American Airlines furloughed 19,000 workers, while United temporarily laid-off more than 13,000 workers such is the havoc that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought upon the aviation industry.
Tens of thousands more airline employees have opted to take extended periods of unpaid leave or have brought forward their retirement plans in an effort to help airlines reduce millions of dollars worth of daily cash burn. As United’s chief executive Scott Kirby pointed out just before Christmas, customer demand isn’t going to change much between now and at least the end of the first quarter in 2021.
With Coronavirus cases surging across the United States, along with two new highly transmissible variants of the virus causing consternation for governments battling to keep a lid on COVID-19, the one thing that will change the course of this deadly pandemic is mass vaccination.
The U.S. government has already approved two innovative vaccines that have been proven to be both safe and effective. The rollout of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine, along with the Moderna candidate should have seen 20 million Americans inoculated with at least the first of two required shots by the end of the year.
The reality, unfortunately, is that the biggest vaccination drive in U.S. history has got off to a slow and bumpy start. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracker, only 2.7 Americans have so far received the jab as of Wednesday – less than 14 per cent of the target the Trump administration had set.
The federal government insists that the doses are available but individual states, left to their own devices to deliver the vaccines into the arms of their citizens, are struggling to vaccinate the most vulnerable at a rate that could bring a swift end to this terrible time in history.
No doubt finding enough healthcare workers to deliver the jabs, at a time when pressure is at its most acute treating an avalanche of COVID patients, is just one of many logistical obstacles that many states are struggling to get their heads around.
It’s a similar issue facing the United Kingdom, which became the first country to not only approve the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine but also have it administered into the arm of 91-year-old Margaret Keenan. Policymakers in the UK, however, know that healthcare workers will struggle on their own to get a country of 66 million vaccinated at speed.
Despite a generous wage support scheme, thousands of British flight attendants have lost their jobs through the course of the pandemic but their skills are now being called upon to help in the vaccination drive. Flight attendants are seen as attractive candidates because of their First Aid and people skills.
The fact that flight attendants are already security cleared and used to working with different teams and learning new skills has health bosses eager to employ laid-off airline workers as COVID-19 vaccinators.
Instead of paying surplus flight attendants simply to sit at home or work just a couple of flights a month, shouldn’t the U.S. government get value for money out of the multi-billion-dollar bailouts they’ve already doled out?
As frontline workers, flight attendants properly equipped with the correct PPE wouldn’t be at any more risk than they are at present and many would no doubt relish the chance to make a difference. It’s also a huge win for the airlines – if only for the inevitable public relations material that would be pumped out.
Of course, for this to work, regulations would have to be temporarily altered, the correct training delivered and a federal vaccination plan drawn up. President-elect Joe Biden wants the U.S. to deliver a million doses a day once he takes office on January 20, 2021. As many as 100 million doses in his first 100 days in office.
Healthcare workers will need help to achieve that aim and there’s an army of surplus flight attendants (who are already being paid by the government) who could help out with the right training and a little imagination.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.