Voices From Travel’s Frontlines: ‘Fasten Your Seatbelts’


Across the globe, workers in the tourism industry — from pilots to tour guides to chauffeurs — are worrying about their livelihoods as governments close borders, prohibit large gatherings and implement strict quarantines on entire regions and countries.

A flight attendant feared that with ever-changing border rules, she might become stranded during an overnight layover in Brussels. A tour guide in Puerto Rico worried over paying for insulin for his diabetic child. An aging hotel housekeeper in Hartford, Conn., weighed financial insecurity with growing health concerns, as she continues cleaning up after others.

We spoke with eight travel and hospitality workers, from California to Croatia. Each had their own story, but echoed similar concerns about the uncertainty about their future. In looking at an unprecedented worldwide coronavirus outbreak, they turned to the past: how their tourism industry had survived devastating hurricanes and destructive civil wars. They will survive this, too, they said.


Carlos Tamarit

Mr. Tamarit, 62, has worked as a driver for EmpireCLS Worldwide Chauffeured Services in New Jersey for more than five years. He was laid off on Sunday.

How has your typical workday changed?

A typical day for me is usually 12 p.m. to midnight. Overnight, all that changed. I’m working — if I’m lucky — five hours. I usually make about $1,500 a week. Now I’m making $600. I’ll wake up tomorrow, I don’t know if I have a job and if I do have a job, I don’t know if I’ll make enough.

My main concern is now that I’m working less than 32 hours, I’m going to lose my health insurance. My 19-year-old daughter has had open-heart surgery. My wife just had a bout with cancer. They had to remove a kidney. I have a precancerous prostate. It’s just a ticking time bomb.

With your family’s health concerns, are you worried about being exposed to the coronavirus?

As drivers we’re putting ourselves at risk. If coronavirus is coming from other countries, it’s coming from the airports, and who’s going to the airports? We do. Everyone who gets into the car is potentially a carrier. But in our position it’s either work and eat, or don’t work and don’t eat.

What does the rest of the week look like for you?

I don’t qualify for food stamps or for most of the programs because they look at your income from the previous year.

Overnight, I have become an extreme “coupon-er” to go to the supermarket. I look at specials, I match up the coupons to the circular. The other day I spent $93, and I saved $65.


Carolina Larsson

Ms. Larsson, 45, is a pilot for a regional airline based at La Guardia Airport. She has worked as a first officer for almost two years, flying an Embraer 175 regional jet that holds 76 passengers plus crew. Her routes typically take her up and down the East Coast.

Are people still flying?

Things are changing day by day. It’s been a huge difference today versus six days ago. On Wednesday I deadheaded to a city in the Midwest for training. There were seven passengers on the 76-passenger plane and three of those were other pilots traveling to work.

What’s the mood like onboard?

The camaraderie between the pilots and flight attendants is amazing. It’s a feeling of ‘we’re all in this together.’ Everyone is kind and thoughtful to each other. And joking still, even though the sky is falling.

What’s your public address announcement to the flying public?

Ladies and gentlemen from the flight deck. We have encountered a turbulent storm and we all need to take precautions to stay safe. Make sure you follow the directions of your health officials to take care of your own and others’ well-being. The fundamentals and future of the world economy are sound and we have a bright and tremendously prosperous future ahead of us once this storm is weathered. Fasten your seatbelts and feel free to move around as soon as we’ve passed through the turbulence and the seatbelt sign has been turned off. Blue skies ahead!

Tour Guides

Jacob Knapp

Mr. Knapp, 39, a tour guide working for Bespoke Lifestyle Management and living in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, has been out of work since Monday. On Sunday, the territory issued one of the most restrictive lockdowns in the United States.

You’ve not been able to give a tour since Sunday. How does it feel to be out of work?

I have a lot of worries. I have two boys — 2 and 4 years old, and one is diabetic and I have to be sure there’s always money for insulin — so I always have to provide. I just can’t not provide.

Something I learned with Hurricane Maria is you have to have a Plan B in life, and it has to be a complete opposite of your Plan A. After the disaster, the whole infrastructure was down and the only people who worked were those who worked with their hands — so I got certified as an electrician. I’m worried right now but, down the line, I have many doors open.

Do you think you’ll stay in the tourism industry?

I am thinking about quitting because of this hit. I love this job, even though I know I’d do financially better in other places. But now I have kids and have to think about it twice.


C.J. Jimenez

Mr. Jimenez, 23, is a front-desk supervisor at Skyview Los Alamos, a boutique hotel in Santa Barbara, Calif. He receives an hourly wage and has worked in the hotel industry for five years.

How are employees at the hotel coping?

It is obvious that we are very stressed out — the industry and our hotel itself. But here at the hotel, we’ve also been optimistic — everyone from our housekeeping staff to the owners has been supportive. That’s what’s been really holding us up: management reassuring us that things will be fine in these tough times.

Would losing your job be a financial strain?

It would be a complete strain on me. I’m 23 years old and I live on my own. I support myself financially, so it would impact me negatively very greatly. Budgeting, I would be OK for two weeks — but just OK.

Do you have a backup plan?

I do not.

For now, what’s keeping you going?

I’ve been Facetiming my mom. She’s definitely the number-one person I go to to stay sane and get advice. But I’ve been trying to stay away from her because I work at a hotel — so who knows if I have any germs — so just FaceTime.


Maria Alpogianis

A Chicago-based flight attendant for United Airlines, Ms. Alpogianis, 51, has worked in the field for 25 years.

Has United instructed you about their upcoming plans regarding coronavirus?

Yes and No. We know about the capacity cuts coming in April and May. But, the situation is moving so quickly we haven’t gotten a timeline or numbers on what will be needed to reduce staffing — or if the voluntary leaves will be enough.

What is the physical and psychological toll?

I don’t feel I have a sense of job security. I really don’t. I’m flying with several very junior flight attendants who are terrified of losing their jobs and their insurance. I’ve been flying for 25 years and I, too, am afraid that I’m going to be furloughed.

When I leave somewhere I become concerned about not being able to get home because of the border closures. When we land we cringe because we don’t know what’s changed during the time we’ve been in flight.

What is keeping you motivated during these uncertain times?

I love my job, and still have a sense of responsibility to show up for my flying partners and the public. People need to get home to their families and they need flight attendants to be on the planes to take them home.


Vivian Roberts

Ms. Roberts, 60, has worked on the housekeeping staff at the Hilton hotel in Hartford, Conn., for 22 years. Ms. Roberts now works a reduced schedule, while most of the other housekeepers there have lost their jobs.

As a room attendant, you come into contact with lots of potential germs. What are you doing to self-protect?

I spray down the door handle before I walk in, I spray disinfectant when I go in and I spray everything down before I touch anything. I wear gloves. I never take them off. When I clean the bathroom, I change the gloves and put on two pairs. And when I’m done, I’ll remove the gloves and use hand sanitizer. Before I go into the next room, I’ll wash my hands with soap and water, use my hand sanitizer and replace my gloves. And I do that between each room.

Are you worried about getting sick?

We’re dealing with people traveling out of the country and out of state. The government is worried about health care workers: but what are they doing for the hospitality workers? People need to realize that we’re here — we’re the everyday people — cleaning up behind you. And you’re depending on us to make sure that happens. We’re putting our own health at risk for this.

Do you feel like you’re deciding between your health and your financial welfare?

I need the money, and at this point I know I can take precautions to protect myself — even if my employer can’t. So I will continue to go to work until I feel that I can no longer protect myself, then I’ll stay home.


Sarah Buljat

Ms. Buljat, 34, is a front-desk receptionist at Hotel Bellevue, on the Croatian island of Lošinj. The hotel owners have kept full staff at regular salaries, while postponing the hiring of seasonal workers and keeping shuttered seasonal properties that were already closed.

Have your daily tasks changed as a result of health precautions?

We’re a five-star hotel, we’re used to the little tasks. We used to give a homemade welcome drink and small hand towels to each guest when they entered. At the moment we give bottled water and sanitizing napkins.

Are you worried about job security?

Other companies are shutting down or cutting employees’ salaries by half. I thought, ‘Who knows what will happen to us.’

Then management called us for a group meeting. The first thing they told us is they’re not going to cut any employees or any salaries. They said: ‘Everything will be fine. Don’t worry about anything.’


Mauricio Martinez

Mr. Martinez, 33, works as a tour guide for the Arenas del Mar Beachfront & Rainforest Resort in Costa Rica, providing guests with tours of the nearby national parks, wetlands and mangroves. He typically gives two tours each morning, in addition to others throughout the day. Thursday evening marked his second tour of the week.

The Costa Rican government closed the border Wednesday, and the national parks are scheduled to close next week. What does it look like where you are now?

Right now we show up to the hotel to be there just in case something happens — a last-minute reservation. Typically, this is high season: the moment we have to work hard and be able to make money for the low season.

The engine of this area is the national parks. Here the park basically supports restaurants, the hotels, taxi drivers — everybody. The park is closing next week and we don’t know when they’ll open again.

Are you worried about keeping your job?

The hotel policy is to keep employees even when we don’t have guests; sustainability means that people keep their jobs. We all believe that the hotel is going to reduce the amount of hours to be able to conserve the jobs.

Have you thought about leaving the tourism field?

If I have to, I’ll do it. The tourism industry is too exposed to the global situation: There could be another war or another outbreak tomorrow. After this, I just want to finish my studies to be a teacher and be better prepared.

These interviews, conducted by telephone and email, have been edited and condensed for clarity.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here