Flight attendants have taken on various roles in the public imagination over the last century: nurse, companion in the skies, doting provider, glamorous traveler.
Though commercial flights have become much cheaper and more frequent since the T.W.A. heyday, there’s still an inherent magic to air travel that rests on the cabin crew providing safety and comfort.
The job is far from a traditional 9-to-5. Perks include schedule flexibility, international travel and, in some cases, work uniforms designed by the likes of Zac Posen and Vivienne Westwood. Oh, and an office above the clouds.
“It’s hard not to appreciate the moment when the sun shines in through the airplane window,” said Allie Malis, 30, an American Airlines flight attendant. “It gives me perspective on how I want to spend my working hours and my life.”
But for the time being, that view is out of reach for many flight attendants. Earlier this month, United Airlines and American Airlines furloughed more than 32,000 employees. Among them were about 15,000 flight attendants, or close to 12 percent of the total flight attendant work force.
Airlines are reporting billion-dollar losses for the year after months of curtailed travel. The International Air Transport Association predicted that air traffic this year will be 66 percent less than in 2019.
Many flight attendants have been grounded for months, but since the furloughs were announced, the number has shot up. Now they are forced to wait as the government deliberates over a stimulus package. And while the future of travel remains uncertain, some are considering giving up a career that has afforded them stability and adventure, and become a way of life.
‘We Are There for People in Their Good and Bad Times’
Earlier this year, Angel Ricumstrict-Zamora, a flight attendant who lives in Detroit with her 2-year-old daughter, bought her first home. “I bought a house for $75,000 less than I was approved for,” she said. “I wanted to live within my means.”
She has worked for United Airlines for 17 years. “It was my plan to do this job forever,” Ms. Ricumstrict-Zamora, 41, said. “We are there for people in their good times and bad times. We have had people find out a family member passed and they’re on the airplane. We have people going to see their first grandchild. We have little kids and adults going on their very first flight, their eyes full of wonder.”
But in recent months, she saw the social world of her profession shrink. “It was like being in ‘The Twilight Zone,’” Ms. Ricumstrict-Zamora said. “Chicago is a crazy city. In the Chicago airport there’s always activity, people running here and there. In August it was a ghost town. More than half the stores were closed. All of us — airline workers, janitors, attendants, pilots, people driving the vans — we knew this dark cloud was hanging over us.”
On Oct. 1, Ms. Ricumstrict-Zamora was furloughed. Soon after, she applied for unemployment benefits and food stamps. “I have taken half of the money out of my 401(k),” she said. A member of the Association of Flight Attendants, she has been tweeting, and calling and emailing her representatives in Congress, as well as those of her colleagues.
“Come December, I have to drain my 401(k),” Ms. Ricumstrict-Zamora said. Though she is looking for other jobs, so far nothing has come through. “I’ve already cut back. I don’t know how much more I can cut back. I’m in danger of losing my slice of the American dream.”
‘I Don’t Want to Do Anything Else’
“The last flight I worked was the end of February,” said Robert Garcia Remmert, 45, a flight attendant for United Airlines who flies out of Chicago and lives in Houston with his husband, who is also a flight attendant. “I had no idea that was going to be my last flight.”
In March, Mr. Garcia Remmert, a member of the Association of Flight Attendants, decided to take a voluntary leave of absence because he has an autoimmune disease.
Though the couple has been able to hold on to their insurance, basic living costs have stretched them thin. Now, Mr. Garcia Remmert is concerned about what will happen to his insurance in the new year; without coverage, his medication costs $18,000 a month.
“My doctor asked, ‘Why is your blood pressure so high?’” Mr. Garcia Remmert said. “I can only assume it’s from stress. Are we going to be able to pay our bills? Am I going to have a job?”
Mr. Garcia Remmert is the son of a preacher and used to travel around Texas and Mexico doing missionary work. He attended five elementary schools, six middle schools and four high schools. “I loved meeting other people and seeing new cultures,” he said. In 2015, he and his husband decided to make a change. “He wasn’t happy with his sales job,” Mr. Garcia Remmert said. “I wasn’t challenged at all.” At the time, he worked in accounting.
In 2016, Mr. Garcia Remmert began flying with United. “I never expected to make those big changes, especially at 40 years old,” he said. “Once I did it, I found I loved the job. I don’t want to do anything else.”
‘It Was Always the Job I Wanted’
Amy Ticknor took after her mother and grandmother when she joined American Airlines as a flight attendant in 2014. “It was always the job I wanted,” she said.
“My grandma used to fly in the times when it was super-glamorous,” Ms. Ticknor, 29, said. “She took movie actors on her planes. She had to quit because she married my grandpa, and you couldn’t be married and be a stewardess. My mom was a gate agent, and she had the same experiences. She met a ton of famous people. We always went on vacations because we would always fly for free.”
Early on in her career, Ms. Ticknor, who lives in Denver, relished the freedom to travel. Now that she’s a mother of two, she appreciates the job’s flexibility. “I get to spend a lot of time with them, but my husband also gets a lot of time with them when I’m away on a trip,” she said.
Ms. Ticknor hasn’t flown since March, when she was pregnant with her second child. Now she’s not sure when she will again. In the meantime, she’s been applying for other jobs; her husband is self-employed, so she is the main insurance provider for her family. “We just had a baby, and we have doctor’s appointments coming up for her almost monthly that we won’t be able to go to if I don’t find a full-time job that can get us health insurance,” she said.
Like many of her colleagues in the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, she has been calling and emailing her representatives every day. She even joined Twitter to speak on behalf of her profession.
“You have a chance to keep your job,” Ms. Ticknor said. “You don’t. You do. It’s been back and forth almost daily. The Republicans are saying it’s the Democrats, and the Democrats are saying that it’s the Republicans. It’s hard to keep up with who is on our side, if anyone even is.”
‘Our Office View Is a Beautiful Blue Sky With White Puffy Clouds’
A couple of years after joining American Airlines, Allie Malis decided to take on a role with an American Airlines union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. As a government affairs representative, she has been fighting to extend the Payroll Support Program.
“I’ve been doing this for four years,” said Ms. Malis. “We’ve had issues we’ve activated on, like minimum rest times, but this is astronomical compared to any other issue we’ve worked on. The flight attendants are more engaged than they’ve ever been before.”
But after months of watching Congress negotiate the bill, Ms. Malis said she feels that she and her co-workers are political pawns. “It’s really hard on us,” she said. “These are our lives, our livelihoods. Our families depend on us.”
Ms. Malis became a flight attendant in 2014; some of her colleagues have been in their roles for decades. “A lot of people love this job because it’s not a 9-to-5, it’s not an office job,” she said. “There are delays, exhaustion. You miss special family events. There are sacrifices. At the same time, our office view is a beautiful blue sky with white puffy clouds.”
When Ms. Malis began working for American, her father retired. During the next three years, Ms. Malis and her family took advantage of her benefits and visited 10 national parks. “We would fly to Utah or North Dakota or wherever, rent a car and go hiking,” she said. “We would stay at a cheap motel or maybe camp. We created some really incredible memories.”
Ms. Malis said she does not have a backup plan if the aid bill fails. Her immediate goal is to see the bill through and get her job back, as well as the jobs of thousands of her co-workers.
“For many of us, this job changed our lives,” Ms. Malis said. “It’s provided opportunities that we couldn’t have dreamed of. To have done everything right and worked hard at this job and to lose it is devastating.”
‘The Lifestyle Feels Natural’
During the last few months, Phillip Delahunty has joined colleagues in the airline industry to rally for the extension of the Payroll Support Program in Florida, where he lives, and in Texas. In early September, he and 30 others picketed outside the office of Ted Cruz, the Texas senator.
Mr. Delahunty, 27, has flown with American Airlines for six years and belongs to the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. Seeing his colleagues joining together to fight for their jobs has made him hopeful. “There are people who are willing to organize in 2020,” he said. “We think of this generation as Netflix and Facebook, but I’ve definitely seen an organized labor resurgence.”
Mr. Delahunty followed in the footsteps of his parents, a captain and a flight attendant, when he joined American Airlines. Because he speaks French and Italian, Mr. Delahunty has regularly flown to Montreal, Milan and Paris. “The lifestyle feels natural,” he said. “It’s kind of how I grew up, just traveling constantly.”
But flying in a pandemic introduced new challenges to an already demanding job. “The mask compliance is a huge issue on airplanes,” he said. “We’re taught how to de-escalate a situation. That’s the emphasis of our training up and down, and diplomacy. Take a tense situation and make it survivable for the next couple of hours. When you have one person not wearing a mask, you have three people who are agitated around them.”
Mr. Delahunty expects to file for unemployment benefits in a couple of months and to move back in with his parents, who say this is worse than any of the crises they saw during their time in the industry.
“That’s a story you’ll hear a lot,” he said. “I’m 27. My generation hasn’t had the same financial stability that our parents did at this age. It always feels like we’re behind. That’s part of the problem here. I had a solid union job that paid well and had great benefits. Now it’s going away.”
The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.
The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.
The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.
“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.
GDP number just announced. Biggest and Best in the History of our Country, and not even close. Next year will be FANTASTIC!!! However, Sleepy Joe Biden and his proposed record setting tax increase, would kill it all. So glad this great GDP number came out before November 3rd.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2020
The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.
Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.
“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”
Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.
“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.
Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.
The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.
Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.
Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.
“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”
The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.
The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.
“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.
Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.
“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.
Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.
As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.
“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.
“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”
The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.
The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.
More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.
These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.
The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.
Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”
“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.
Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.
The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.
After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.
China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.
Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.
“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”
China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.
Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.
A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.
People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.
The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”
Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”
But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.
“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”
The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.
Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.
The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.
“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.
First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.
Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.
Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.
China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.
Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.
Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.
In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.
More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.
Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.
Ana Swanson contributed reporting.
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