Uniforms covered in PPE and long-haul cargo flights crew can’t disembark (but they do sleep in business class): Virgin Atlantic stewardess reveals what life is like in the skies in the Covid era
- Flight Service Manager Ellie Hosgood, 37, tells MailOnline Travel that life for flight crew is ‘like a movie’
- She is tested for Covid before every flight at Heathrow – some of her colleagues have retrained as testers
- Some countries require crew to wear full PPE – and she has flown cargo-only flights to Asia she can’t leave
- Ellie reveals that flights are now often booked by passengers undergoing traumatic emotional experiences
Flight Service Manager Ellie Hosgood during normal times
The signature Vivienne Westwood look is out, dressing like a surgeon is in.
MailOnline Travel caught up with a stewardess from Virgin Atlantic for some insight into how different life in the skies is at the moment, and she revealed that at times it feels ‘like something out of a movie’.
And it’s not just because she sometimes has to cover her Westwood-designed uniform with PPE.
Flight Service Manager Ellie Hosgood, 37, reveals how colleagues have retrained as Covid testers, that she sometimes flies to the other side of the world and back without getting off the plane (but does get to sleep in business class) and that the pandemic has led to an even closer bond between crew members.
They are classed as key workers and crew Dreamliners and Airbus A350s undertaking important cargo missions and providing connectivity for customers for whom travel is legal – and essential.
Reporting for duty
In the UK, Ellie’s day starts at Heathrow’s Terminal 3.
She said: ‘Nowadays no passengers are travelling through. The terminal is currently closed and will reopen once travel reopens at scale, but in the meantime, we have repurposed our Upper Class Wing as our own Covid testing centre for cabin crew and pilots.
‘We visit the empty terminal before departure where we’re greeted by a small team of crew who have retrained as Covid testers. Here, we get tested before every flight and wait for our negative test result before we head over to Terminal 2 where Virgin Atlantic is temporarily flying from.
‘Walking through a deserted terminal is really strange, but it makes me even more excited to welcome more customers onboard our planes in the future.’
Virgin Atlantic cabin crew are classed as key workers and staff Dreamliners and Airbus A350s undertaking important cargo missions and providing connectivity for customers for whom travel is legal – and essential. This picture was snapped in Puerto Rico
Ellie (pictured) revealed that some countries, such as India, require crew to wear full PPE
Before boarding, the aircraft is given a virus-zapping cleanse.
Ellie, who has been with Virgin Atlantic for 18 years, said: ‘Before we board the aircraft, it undergoes rigorous cleaning where every surface is wiped down and a process called ‘fogging’ takes place. This is where the aircraft is cleaned with a hospital-grade spray to ensure 99.9 per cent of any potential bacteria or viruses are killed. This is done before every departure at all airports we operate from, which helps reassure us as much as it does our customers.
‘We must wear a mask as soon as we’re in the airport, and we wear them throughout our flight. This is definitely a challenge as it makes communicating with our customers a little difficult. Virgin Atlantic crew are renowned for their warm smiles and welcoming personalities, but now our passengers can’t see our faces!
‘I have really worked on conveying my emotions through my eyes and my mannerisms, whilst also listening very closely as it can be hard to hear through the masks over the noise of the engines.’
Ellie, who lives in Pullborough, West Sussex, revealed that for some flights her look is more medical than flight attendant.
She said: ‘For some destinations, such as India, we have to wear full PPE for boarding, which is definitely a change from our signature Vivienne Westwood look!’
Before passengers board, the crew discuss the travel rules in place for their destination.
Ellie receiving a pre-flight Covid test. She revealed that some crew members have retrained as virus testers. She’s pictured on the right in her ‘standard’ pandemic apparel, waiting to greet customers onboard
Ellie said: ‘We do our preflight briefing onboard the aircraft, talking about the flight ahead, any special requirements for the flight and the processes and procedures in the destination we’re flying to. Each destination has different guidance that changes all the time, so we need to be sure the crew are all aware and confident of the restrictions. We then welcome customers onboard. The boarding process has changed slightly, and we request customers board the aircraft in smaller groups, to limit social contact as much as possible.
‘We usually hand out in-flight packs that contain toothpaste and socks, but we have also introduced a health pack for all customers that contains medical-grade face masks, anti-bacterial wipes and hand sanitiser. Customers are required to wear face masks throughout the flight, and we provide wipes and santiser for their own comfort and peace of mind throughout the journey. Feedback from customers on how we keep them safe and healthy throughout the journey with us has been very positive.’
Once the flight is underway, Ellie and her team offer a pared-down service, but there’s still free booze.
Ellie said: ‘Since the Covid pandemic struck, we’ve totally redesigned our meal services to help keep our customers and us safe. As a temporary measure, we’re now offering a simplified hot meal service which reduces the amount of contact we have with our passengers, which many have said they find reassuring.
‘We keep updating our tasty food offering and we’re still offering our customer’s favourite Eric Lanlard afternoon tea alongside complimentary alcohol in all cabins.’
Ellie revealed that service is now pared down, but complimentary alcohol is still served in all the cabins
The meal service isn’t the only thing that’s changed. The flights are now often filled with passengers experiencing very difficult emotional situations, so the crews have had to recalibrate their interactions.
Ellie explained: ‘We’ve moved from taking people on holidays of a lifetime to welcoming people who are travelling for essential and often really emotive reasons, particularly if they’re returning home to visit a sick loved one.
‘Our crew have been phenomenal in recognising all the unique situations people are finding themselves in. The care and attention I’ve seen has been remarkable and I truly believe these customers will remember us for a long time. It’s these connections that have really kept us going throughout the pandemic.’
Instagram moments on hold
The crew have also had to adapt to their downtime being less glamorous and adventurous. And sometimes flying cargo-only operations that mean remaining on the plane at the destination before returning a few hours later.
Ellie said: ‘Sadly, cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge, trips to the Taj Mahal and shopping in New York are distant memories for now, as in some destinations we’re required to stay in our hotel or even in our rooms. It’s a strange feeling and often seems like something from a movie.
‘However, we’re an adaptable bunch and these new experiences create such a unique, strong bond between us all. It’s also given me a new appreciation for my job and seeing the world. I can’t wait to be able to explore again, especially our new destinations of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Pakistan.
Our cargo flights
‘Some of our cargo journeys are now classed as “ultra-long-haul”, which means we fly to the other side of the world, pick up vital cargo and fly home again without getting off the plane,’ said Ellie
Cargo flights are usually crewed by two attendants, who get to bed down in business class
‘One thing that is completely new since the Covid pandemic hit is that on some flights, we may not have any passengers at all. Our cargo operation has increased significantly in the past year, and to many destinations we’re operating cargo-only services. We operate as one or two cabin crew members onboard for safety reasons. We have also operated some special charters for the Department of Health and Social Care carrying essential PPE and medical equipment and we even received special dispensation from the CAA to carry this precious cargo in the cabins.
‘Seeing swathes of boxes in place of smiling passengers definitely feels odd, but it’s a real privilege to know we’re supporting the NHS front lines by bringing vital medical supplies home.
‘We’re used to long flight times, but some of our cargo journeys are now classed as “ultra-long-haul”, which means we fly to the other side of the world, pick up vital cargo and fly home again without getting off the plane.’
Ellie said that she had crewed cargo flights to Shanghai and Hong Kong, which took around 11 hours, spent two to three hours on the ground inside the plane, then flown back.
These flights, ‘the result of some innovative thinking across the business’ are ‘helping us play our part in the fight against the pandemic’, said Ellie.
They’re usually crewed by two attendants who monitor the cabin, the cargo in the cabin, the galleys and the toilets, and who check in on the pilots.
Ellie added: ‘The return sector is then for sleep and it’s always a privilege to bed down in one of our Upper Class suites.
During these ultra-long flights we get to see the sunrise and sunset twice, which always feels quite special.’
Corneel Koster, Chief Customer and Operations Officer, Virgin Atlantic, commented: ‘I’m so proud of our cabin crew who have adapted effortlessly to a much-changed operation and to the rigorous, multi-layered health and safety measures we’ve implemented throughout the last year. From the beginning, our absolute focus has been to ensure all our customers fly safe and fly well and our onboard teams have played a vital role in making this happen, doing so with that signature Virgin Atlantic flair we’re famous for, albeit from behind a face mask!’