Fly to the ‘center’ of pandemic, New York
Don’t be afraid, this flight from the Motherland will take you back home
Published: Apr 14, 2021 06:53 PM
Air China flight CA9597 takes off at the Daxing International Airport in Beijing, capital of China, Sept. 25, 2019. Photo:Xinhua

File  Photo:Xinhua

After a drizzle, aviation obstruction lights at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK Airport) shined through mist and made the airway bright as dawn, at 9:30 pm on March 28, 2020, New York time. 

On the other side of the globe, Beijing saw another sunny morning with patchy clouds drifting on a blue sky.

CA982, a flight from New York to Beijing carried by China state-owned airline Air China, took off in the noise of rumbling engine and headed for Beijing.

This is "the most dangerous" flight among all Chinese international flight routes at the moment when the confirmed cases in the US surpassed 100,000, the highest number in the world. New York State which hosts New York City is the hardest-hit area by COVID-19 in the US. 

The chief flight attendant Lv Han who had 17,000 flight-hour worth of experience had never been on such a special flight before. All 18 on-duty flight attendants put on heavy protective gowns for the first time, which made simple movements like sitting down or standing up several times strength-consuming than the usual. And they would face the passengers who were as "well-armed" as them.

"Did you sweat?"

"I was soaked all over."

Lv wore an adult diaper in case of any accidents but it wasn't used as she drank almost not a single drop of water during the 10-hour flight.    

Due to the pandemic sweeping across the world, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) required every domestic airline to maintain just one flight route to one particular country. Air China will only keep operating flights between Beijing and Los Angeles, starting from March 29, 2020. 

Therefore, this CA982 will be the last return flight carried by Air China from New York.

The majority passengers on board are Chinese students studying overseas. Lv could see their eagerness to go back home in their eyes.

Lv Han works inside an airplane cabin before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Courtesy of Air China

Lv Han works inside an airplane cabin before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Courtesy of Air China

Outbound flight: "there was nothing to be afraid of"

There were only three passengers in the usual full cabin

Turning the clock back to March 25, 2020, Lv was informed to fly CA989 from Beijing to New York where she would get a rest for 28 hours before flying the return CA982. 

"The first thought coming to my mind was to pack up my luggage and there was nothing to be afraid of," Lv said. 

The aircrews who had flown international flights were required to quarantine for medical observation for 14 days. A number of Air China's aircrews were put under quarantine. 

Holding no fears, Lv submitted willingness paper to join in the "battle" against the severe conditions at the beginning of February. She applied to cancel her annual leave and would immediately take any flights assignments.

The additional 17 flight attendants were assembled on March 26, among which only one was male, three are post-80s and 14 are post-90s. 

During the online safety briefing ahead of the flight, attendants actively brought up with ideas and suggestions to ensure this special flight carried out smoothly and no one showed any slightest tension. "Their morale was high," Lv said.

Lv's father took her to the airport at 9 am on March, 27,2020, four hours before the flight's departure and just asked her to take good protective measures with no superfluous reminds.

Tacit understanding grew between Lv and her father in her years-long flying career. Lv knows when she is supposed to tell her father she has landed safely and when to "report" what meals she has had. 

The first thing an on-duty flight attendant needs to do after arriving at the company is to sign in. Air China distributed personal protective equipment (PPE) to cabin crews, including protective suits, goggles, N95 masks, medical rubber gloves and shoe covers. Lv collected and packed everyone's passports and made sure she had all the clearance documents with her.

All cabin crews gathered at 10:20 am and had body temperature measured to ensure nobody's temperature was above 37.3 degrees Celsius before taking a shuttle bus to the airport.

They went through security checks twice and completed the immigration procedures for flying outbound after arriving at Terminal Three of Beijing Capital International Airport. The normally bustling waiting hall was quite and seat rows were empty.

The airplane to conduct CA989 this time is Boeing 747-8, a double-deck wide-body jet airliner. Lv adored the plane a lot for its beautiful appearance and roomy cabins, many people dubbed it "a big goose."

Having five transport bases in US, including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Houston and Washington, Air China was the largest carrier of flights connecting China and US before the outbreak of the pandemic. As a high-volume flight route, there used to be three Beijing-New York flights each day, which used to be full of passengers. 

Taking off at 1 pm as scheduled, the plane carried only three passengers this time although having a capacity of transporting 365 passengers. Lv said it's the fewest passengers she had ever seen in her 17-year flying experience. 

The airplane flew over International Date Line six hours after departure. Looking outside the windows, the vastly expanded snow and ice covered Alaska came into the eyes. Lv knew that they had entered the territory of US. 

When the plane landed at Terminal One of JFK Airport, it was 1:40 pm local time. Aircrews and passengers could go through immigration as normal and there were no epidemic prevention measures. Airport staff only wore face masks when dealing with flights from China and were seen taking off their masks after processing passenger and crews of CA989.

Air China New York office is based in Long Beach, about 40-minute drive from the airport. The first international flight Lv took as a flight attendant was to fly to New York 16 years ago. In her impression, New York is truly the city that never sleeps with tall buildings scattered in Manhattan. But now there were noticeably fewer cars on the roads. Local residents went to the beach to surf or walked dogs as usual and many didn't wear masks.

The aircrews arrived at the base, a five-story building, about 4 pm and were going to sleep there. Lv was too tired to have dinner and went to bed directly after taking a shower.

Lv woke up for the first time around 11 pm and got take-away dumplings with pork and three other fresh ingredients from the canteen on the second floor. After having finished her meal at her temporary dormitory, she went to sleep for the second time. Lv is accustomed to the reverse of day and night after taking international flights for years. Considering the effects of jet lags, Air China's New York office would provide five meals to its aircrews each day.

Lv woke up again at 5 am March 28, the date to carry the return flight CA982. After a simple breakfast, Lv didn't have anything to avoid the need for the lavatory.

Cabin crew members help each other put on protective suits. Photo: Courtesy of Air China

Cabin crew members help each other put on protective suits. Photo: Courtesy of Air China

Return flight: "loose a total weight of 5 catty (a traditional Chinese unit of mass, equal to 500 grams)"

When the protective suit was taken off, clothes dripped with sweat

"Lv Han, this importance task and responsibility are now on your shoulders," Yang Le, chief of Air China's New York office, told Lv before the departure of the flight, while expressing full confidence in her.

"I was a little worried before leaving the office, but worries dispersed after I saw how energetic and high-spirited my teammates were," Lv said. They undertook an online safety briefing at 4 pm and considered all possible accidental events. The last three rows were designated as the quarantine zone and passengers who had fever would be directed to the zone. 

The aircrews took a coach to the JFK Airport at 6:40 pm. They helped each other to put on protective suits. The only male flight attendant took more work and was the busiest among the group.

Five Chinese authorities issued a notice that required all international flights bound for Beijing must enter Chinese borders at 12 other designated Chinese cities first. "The most frequently asked question is what they should do after arriving at the first entry cities. We will explain to the passengers, tell them what to do and console them," Lv said, adding that passengers seemed more reliant on flight attendants.

The airplane took off at 9:30 pm from JFK Airport and was headed for China. "Dear passengers, please wear your face masks during the flight. If you have any symptoms such as cough or fever, please report to the flight attendants immediately," a warm passenger address reminded.

Flight attendants enter the real "battle zone" afterwards.

As they could not recognize each other, everyone wrote their posts on the chest positions of their protective gowns. Lv wrote CF, abbreviation for chief flight attendant. A cabin crew member named Jin Yu who is skilled in drawing sketched a fist striking the coronavirus and a big smile face on the back of Lv's suit. 

They communicated through body language as they could not hear each other clearly. When Lv walked around the cabins to check the safety works, a responsibility for a chief flight attendant, she headed up twice at the staircase to the upper-deck flight attendant who understood Lv's inquiry and made a hand posture of heart and then pumped hands down to reassure Lv. When Lv looked at the back cabins, flight attendants on the posts all thumbed up to signal that their responsible areas were ready. 

"Wearing protective suits was tough," Lv said, adding that "we were worried that the loose clothing would affect our movements, so we came up with some ideas, like sticking adhesive tape, using rubber bands. If you walked fast, you needed to pull the trouser legs."    

Air China made adjustment to the flight meals with each providing individually packed food such as yogurt, bread, biscuits, cakes and sausages. 

Cabin crews tested passengers' body temperatures for the third time, three hours before landing. The temperature of a 19-year-old student read a little high. He said "my temperature was a bit high when I woke up." The passenger's body temperature lowered down soon and he passed the quarantine inspection after landing at the airport. Everybody was relieved.

After 14-hour flight and flying over half of the globe, the airplane landed at the first entry airport, Tianjin Airport at 11:34 pm on March 29, Beijing time. 

Lv stood at the boarding gate to bid farewell to the passengers and waved a goodbye. "You have worked hard!" "Thank you!"Almost all the passengers expressed their gratitude to the aircrew. 

The customs quarantine officers of Tianjin Airport organized the passengers and flight attendants to disembark in batches, examined the entry registration form one to one, conducted the throat swab nucleic acid tests, and went through entry formalities. The cabin crews returned back to the airplane after three hours.

The aircrews flew back to Beijing on the same flight on the early morning of March, 30, 2020 and the 18 flight attendants all returned, safely.  

When Lv took off her protective suit, she was soaked all over the body. There was no need to wring out the clothes she wore inside the suit as they were soaked in sweat.

"Having loosed a total weight of 5 catty in three days, I thought the weighing scale had been broken," Lv said.

Cabin crew members submit documents to Tianjin customs quarantine inspection staff at Tianjin airport. Photo: Courtesy of Air China

Cabin crew members submit documents to Tianjin customs quarantine inspection staff at Tianjin airport. Photo: Courtesy of Air China

Quarantine: "all back safe and sound"

Ensuring people's security is the top priority of the flight

Born in Beijing, Lv was 39 years old in 2020. Lv had thought flight attendants were "fairy ladies" before she became one of them.

She joined Air China as a flight attendant in 2003. 

"Being a flight attendant is different from what in people's impression. It's toilsome. You will understand it gradually," one teacher told those young girls at the beginning of their twenties during the qualification training.

Lv always remembered the teacher's words and had gradually understood it. "The blue sky is beautiful but reality is reality. This job means getting up early in the morning, returning home late at night, fewer reunions and more separation." She said "warm-hearted service is not the only requirement in the sky thousands of meters above the earth. Flight attendants also need to handle urgent issues quickly with wisdom and ensure passengers' safety to make them feel at home."   

The 18 cabin crews who served CA982 were quarantined for medical observation at hotels in Beijing. The airline asked them to report their body temperatures three times a day and provided yogurts and fruit for each meal.

All the cabin crews told Lv that they felt the whole body ached after taking the flight on the first day of the quarantine. 

"You should then get more exercise. To fulfill the job of being a flight attendant, you need a healthy and strong body." Lv kept encouraging and warming her teammates online through WeChat group chatting, and would advise one piece of beautiful symphony and a book to keep them relaxed .

Some teammates began to share their gym photos in the WeChat group on the third day of the quarantine. "Flight attendants are summoned temporarily for each flight task. Some people may not team up together again for years. But at this moment, we felt like a family."

Lv continued to learn the latest COVID-19 reports in regards to CA982 and didn't hear any confirmed cases yet, which was the happiest thing for her. 

Lv would fly 20 hours every week before the epidemic broke out. She was so busy that she had only celebrated Chinese traditional Spring Festival twice with her family in the past 17 years. But due to the drop in international flights, she's flying just over ten hours every month at present.

The Captain, a film adapted from a real flight accident, was a blockbuster across the country in 2019. Lv couldn't help shedding tears when watching it. She said the hero aircrews were role models for her. "No matter pilots or flight attendants, everyone has undertaken training day after day to ensure passengers' safety, which is the meaning for us on this flight," she recalled one classical movie line uttered by head flight attendant Bi Nan.  

"We will return back together," Bi said.

"All of our team returned safe and sound," Lv said.

Lv would finish her quarantine after a few days and all the 18 flight attendants would go home. Afterwards, they would return back to their posts and carry the next flight tasks. They were ready.