Cabin crew members from South African Airways (SAA) are performing an important essential service role during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Imraan Abed, 39, from Woodstock, is one of the many brave SAA cabin crew members who had to repatriate passengers to their home countries or bring South Africans home from overseas.
Last month, on Sunday April 12, he, along with 11 fellow crew members and three flight-deck crew, had to repatriate German citizens to Frankfurt in a direct 12-hour evening flight from Cape Town.
Mr Abed, with nearly 16 years experience, found this a unique experience as SAA hasn’t done any international flights from Cape Town International Airport since 2012. The majority of SAA international flights were always from Johannesburg, and since 2012, all international SAA flights have left from OR Tambo International Airport.
They flew on an Airbus A340-600 aircraft which can take up to 317 passengers when full, though because of Covid-19, they could only accommodate 70 percent of the aircraft load as passengers had to be spaced out on the aircraft.
Under normal circumstances, passengers would enjoy a hot-dinner service with a full bar and a hot-breakfast service on an evening long-haul international flight. This time around, cabin crew had to work in personal protective equipment (PPE), incuding a hazmat suit with gloves and goggles, and provide a more streamlined service, which included a dinner snack box and later a breakfast snack box. Beverages were served except alcohol. “We had a streamlined service to minimise the contact with passengers,” Mr Abed said.
They would wear new PPE for for the breakfast service as the first set of gear was discarded in a bio-hazard bag after the dinner service.
Apart from providing a service, cabin crew have their primary responsibility of safety. They are trained in aviation first aid, firefighting, evacuation procedures of an aircraft during emergencies and decompression emergency protocols which are essential for passengers’ safety for the entire flight.
Mr Abed says many passengers were happy to go home.
“We still managed to make small talk with passengers like we would on a normal basis, though everyone was so intrigued by how we looked in our PPE and some passengers were still impressed that we could provide a good service under the circumstances,” he said.
When they arrived in Frankfurt on Monday morning April 13, they would wear their PPE until they got to the hotel foyer and would discard their PPE in a designated area before they went to their rooms.
Unlike most trips where cabin crew could go sightseeing, shopping and out for meals, they were unable to leave their hotel rooms.
“We had to stay in our rooms the whole time. We could not even socialise with our fellow crew in the hotel, and restaurants would deliver food to the hotels if we would like to order food,” he said.
Mr Abed observed from the bus drive from the airport and looking outside his hotel room window that people were walking in small groups of two, wearing masks. They left the next morning from Frankfurt to ferry an empty aircraft to OR Tambo International airport wearing their PPE.
When they arrived in the country, cabin crew had to self-isolate for 14 days before they could integrate with their families.
Mr Abed says they first stayed at a hotel in Benoni for nine days and then the last five days they would self-isolate at their homes.
Mr Abed says the crew at the hotel were at least able to go outside one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. The crew were allowed to interact with each other outside of rooms, though they had to wear a mask and do physical distancing. The hotel staff would bring the crew their breakfast, lunch and supper to their rooms.
Mr Abed says all that time spent during self-isolation felt really depressing. “You are confined in this room; it’s not a normal thing to do, and I felt like I was in prison a little bit,” he said.
To pass the time, he would Skype with his family, watch a lot of television and do some yoga in the confines of his room. The cabin crew were tested for Covid-19 two days before they left the hotel by Department of Health workers.
It was also a difficult time for Mr Abed as his mother, Rokia Effendi, 73, who lives in Reading, England, tested positive for Covid-19.
“She had an asthma attack and needed to go to the hospital where she got tested for the virus which she contracted in the hospital over a month ago,” he said.
Mr Abed says she has recovered from the virus, but he was frustrated that he could not be there to see her.
As a cabin crew member, Mr Abed has travelled to over 20 countries and his favourite destinations include New York, London and Hong Kong.
He says he was blessed that he could visit his mother in London during the times that he travelled there. The part he found challenging was how flying could disrupt his sleeping patterns as he was travelling through multiple time zones.
He and his wife, Rehana Khan, who is also a cabin crew member, are currently staying at their other residence in Johannesburg. Mr Abed is working from the Johanesburg base, though he and his wife come home to Woodstock two to three times a month after their international flights.
When he is not flying, he enjoys exercising, cooking and doing volunteer work as part of the Woodstock
Community Policing Forum.