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United Airlines planes parked on the airfield during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Nicholas Engen

In the Era of COVID-19, the Skies Can Be a Lonely Place to Work

United Airlines flight attendant Nicholas Engen takes us inside America's eerily empty airports and airplanes.

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When Nicholas Engen wakes up at 8 a.m., he reaches for the note he left on the nightstand hours before. Like he does most evenings, he’d scribbled himself a message before drifting off. The nightly missives help remind the Denver-based United Airlines flight attendant where he is. Charleston, this one reads.

The novel coronavirus has arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, too. By April 16, 385 cases and three deaths had been reported. On the same day in Denver, the counts were 1,549 and 63, respectively. Like Denver, Charleston has been under a stay-at-home ordinance since March 24, so there’s no one in the Hyatt Place hotel lobby as Engen wheels his luggage to the van waiting to take him to Charleston International Airport. And there’s no one in line at security when the 24-year-old goes through at 9:05. When UA 4886 takes off for Washington, D.C., at 10:12—three minutes early—only 12 passengers are aboard.

“Just another norm of being a flight attendant right now during corona,” Engen says.

In fact, during the first two weeks of April, United Airlines’ passenger load was down 97 percent from the same period in 2019: Only 200,000 people flew on United flights in those weeks; in 2019 more than 6 million did. At Denver International Airport, around the same time, TSA security checkpoints saw 95 percent fewer passengers than during the same period in 2019. (As a result, DIA is letting airlines defer their rental and landing fee payments for April, May, and June until later this year.)

With so few people passing through the airport, more than half of DIA’s shops and restaurants have shut down. Those that remain open have adjusted their hours. “When Starbucks is closed, you know things are messed up,” Engen says.

Before the novel coronavirus, more than 400 United flights departed DIA daily; but only about 150 per day are currently scheduled for May. And lately, Engen rarely sees more than 50 passengers on a flight. They’re largely people who have to travel for business or to see family; some of them are healthcare workers going to hot spots like New Jersey (United is providing free flights to some of these workers). Few of them—despite Engen’s mask, gloves, and omnipresent Lysol wipes—want much in the way of drinks or snacks. There’s not much on offer anyway. Coffee, tea, ice, cups, and orange juice have all been nixed. It’s just cans and bottles now.

As UA 4886 lands at Dulles International Airport at 11:34 (12 minutes ahead of schedule), Engen sees something that a month before would have been unthinkable: Rows of United planes parked on the airfield. Some of them haven’t flown in weeks.

Engen’s trip to Denver doesn’t depart for almost another five hours—a “long sit,” as it’s called in the biz, and with the reduced number of flights, there are a lot more of them lately. So he heads off to another hotel. Another note. Another sleep. In the era of COVID-19, even when you’re in the nation’s capital, there’s little else to do.

After a few hours of rest, Engen returns to Dulles. He’s hoping to get some food, but the options are limited. In some places, it’s impossible to get food at all, so Engen now packs a suitcase full of meals for his trips. Often, he eats alone.

This is Engen’s final leg. He’s headed home on UA 322 from Dulles to DIA aboard a plane that can hold 166 but carries only about 50. It lands in Denver 10 minutes early, at 6:15 p.m. Rush hour. Normally, from the air, Engen would see I-70 and I-25 choked with cars. But today, the roads, like his flights, are empty. “Before corona, as flight attendants, we really loved having empty flights; it was the break you needed sometimes,” Engen says. His voice softens. “Now we just want everybody back. We want the craziness. We want it all back.”


This story is powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative. 5280 joined this historic collaboration with more than 20 other newsrooms across Colorado to better serve the public

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