Flight attendants are being asked to watch boxes on cargo flights.
Flight attendants are being asked to watch boxes on cargo flights. Photo by Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

With passenger demand sagging to unbelievably low records, plenty of airline employees have questioned why they’re even going to work just to operate a nearly empty flight. The exposure risks have been made clearly evident as hundreds of flight crew members have fallen ill during the COVID-19 pandemic, and several aircrew personnel have died as a result.

At American Airlines, some flight attendants have been scheduled to crew flights with no passengers—there aren’t even seats in the cabin! Adapting to the challenges of recent events, American Airlines has modified some of their jets to carry cargo in the passenger cabin. With fewer flights operating, the airplanes were sitting idle, but the demand for cargo is still strong. Operating special cargo charter flights, American plans to move just less than six million pounds of cargo in April.

So why are these flight attendants being scheduled on cargo flights? Because the aircraft were set up as passenger jets, the cabin isn’t equipped to handle a fire like the cargo compartments are. In a cargo compartment, there are smoke detectors and fire extinguishers that can contain most any blaze that breaks out. Passenger cabins aren’t set up the same—a cargo compartment-style fire extinguisher system would be lethal to customers. Instead, flight attendants are trained to move people away from a fire and to fight the flames with smaller extinguishers.

With no high-maintenance customers to serve, and no flight attendant call buttons to answer, the flights are virtually guaranteed to be a cakewalk assignment for those who snag them. Bumpy landing? The boxes won’t complain. Their required presence does remind us, though, that flight attendants aren’t airborne drink servers—their job is to save lives when things get really, really ugly.