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'People are so grateful': Alta. flight attendant on frontline repatriation effort
EDMONTON -- Turbulent doesn’t begin to describe the changes that started three weeks ago in the life of an Alberta flight attendant.
At first, Edmonton-raised and now Cochrane-based WestJetter Brandy Whitby remembers being “a bit more mindful” amid news of a new virus doctors didn’t have a cure for.
But things quickly ramped up.
"My flights in the course of one week turned from regular scheduled flights to we were now ferrying flights — which means going down empty to reposition a crew to bring back full guests, like full planes of Canadians that were stranded,” she recalled to CTV News Edmonton.
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Then Canada restricted international travel and asked citizens to be home by March 23. Twenty minutes later, WestJet told employees they’d be helping repatriate Canadians abroad.
“Basically overnight… we realized the virus was spreading at an uncontrollable rate.”
‘IT’S A BIT ALARMING TO GRASP THE ENORMITY OF IT’
Whitby has been part of the crew on four flights that have brought Canadians home from the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean.
WestJet is the only job she’s had in her adult life.
In 17 years, the flight attendant has been trained to deal with a number of scenarios while hurtling through the atmosphere at thousands of feet.
So despite concerns from others in her field, she’s felt equipped by her employer to navigate the ballooning pandemic.
But for those who had been travelling — particularly vacationers whose goal had been to disconnect and relax — the COVID-19 developments that were forcing them home were more than a rude awakening.
“When they board the plane and see us in gloves and mask, they’re just like, ‘Oh my goodness. This is real,’” Whitby explains.
“Until you really land here and see the magnitude — that there’s nobody in the airport, there’s no cars on the road, there’s minimal food in the grocery stores — they’re really surprised.”
The flight attendant understands the whiplash.
“When I open the aircraft door and you feel the warmth and you get the breeze, you’re just like, ‘Oh this is nice!’”
Momentarily, it’s as though there’s not a worldwide pandemic.
“It is a bit alarming to grasp the enormity of it.”
But more than anything, her passengers are relieved at the help.
“People are so grateful. They’re so grateful.”
THANKS FROM TRUDEAU
Repatriated Canadians aren’t the only ones thanking Whitby and her colleagues.
The office of Canada’s prime minister reached out after reading her online updates.
Justin Trudeau would later recognize airlines in a national address: “I especially want to thank the staff from pilots to air crews for their professionalism and dedication. During a very difficult time for the industry when people are worried about their jobs and futures, they're still stepping up to help.”
“As frontline staff, sometimes you don’t often get recognition on that level,” Whitby commented.
“You can’t ask for any greater honour in our country.”
Another message of gratitude came from one woman who recognized her from a flight 15 years ago.
The thanks offer some counterbalance against news of virus spread and economic stalling, the latter of which has not left WestJet unaffected.
“We know this is a bump in the road,” Whitby said.
“I think we’re all just really hoping that this subsides and that we’re able to, once the curve’s been flattened, get back to our jobs as normal and take our families back to Disneyland.”
Late Thursday, Global Affairs Canada said it was working to repatriate Canadians around the world, but that "some may remain outside of the country for an indeterminate amount of time."
On Friday, Canadians were scheduled to return home on flights from Peru, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Tunisia.
With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Nicole Weisberg and CTVNews.ca