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Laid-Off Flight Attendants Find New Work Fighting COVID-19

It seems like such an obvious and powerful idea: airlines that laid off thousands of workers over the past few weeks are retraining some employees to assist in hospitals and nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic. Flight attendants, after all, are already skilled in handling minor medical emergencies and by the very nature of their job, know how to remain coolly capable amid chaos.

After Scandinavian Airlines announced a temporary work reduction on March 15 that affected 90% of its workforce, it's now proudly posting pictures on Twitter of its first group of cabin crew members who've volunteered to help healthcare workers.

And Virgin Atlantic and the budget carrier easyJet, both based in the U.K., are working with the country's National Health Service to staff nearly half a dozen new hospitals opening specifically to deal with the coronavirus crisis. The employees will change beds, tend to patients and assist doctors and nurses working on the wards.

"We are very proud of our highly skilled people at Virgin Atlantic," said Corneel Koster, the company's chief customer officer, in a statement provided to NPR. "Since the Government's Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was announced, we have been inundated with our employees looking to help other organizations at this time of crisis."

A 21-year-old SAS flight attendant named Filip Palmgren told The Associated Press he was excited to sign up after learning of the opportunity from the airline.

"I immediately replied to the email," he said. "I felt this was a very huge opportunity for me to help and to contribute to society and help the healthcare, which I think is very important in these times."

The only airlines that have announced such programs have received outside support. The Wallenberg Foundation in Sweden has stepped up to help SAS, and British airline employees who are pivoting to work or volunteer at the new hospitals fighting COVID-19 will get free accommodation as well as partial board.

Julie Hedrick, the national president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, did not rule out the possibility of similar initiatives in the U.S. "We are having conversations with our leaders in Washington to discuss utilizing interested Flight Attendants to lend a hand during this crisis," she said in a statement to NPR. "We know there is interest among the American Airlines Flight Attendant group, and we stand ready to assist."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.