The words and the image in this tweet say it all. Seven SAS employees wearing blue hospital gowns smile at the camera as they prepare for a new, unexpected chapter of their careers.
These cabin crew members have exchanged their blue SAS uniforms for medical scrubs as they begin a three-day health training course to care for coronavirus patients.
They have been dubbed the ‘airline angels’ and join a growing number of furloughed airline staff who are being retrained to help fight a medical crisis threatening to overwhelm healthcare systems worldwide.
Swedish-based SAS has temporarily laid off 10,000 staff, 90% of its workforce, as the impact of the pandemic smashes the airline industry worldwide. But under a Swedish government plan, Sophiahemmet University Hospital in Stockholm has been enlisted to teach cabin crew new skills, including sterilizing equipment, making hospital beds and providing information to patients and relatives.
“There are incredibly competent people who will be able to offer relief to our healthcare staff immediately after completing the training so that doctors and nurses can to an even greater extent devote themselves to caring for patients,” Johanna Adami, Principal at the University, told Reuters news agency. “We have a long, long list of healthcare providers that are just waiting for them.”
Airline staff are particularly well-suited to helping in the healthcare sector. “They have basic healthcare education from their work. They are also very experienced to be flexible and think about security, and also to handle complicated situations,” Adami said.
IATA chief medical adviser Dr David Powell describes cabin crew as a “special group.”
“They are used to working disrupted hours, being on their feet for long periods, and adapting to the needs of sometimes demanding or anxious people,” he said. “Their training includes specialized first aid for medical emergencies and requires them to adhere to emergency procedures—something that is checked on a regular basis, to ensure they present a reassuring but authoritative response.
“With this set of skills and experience, I am sure they can provide invaluable support to overstretched healthcare workers,” he continued.
The medical retraining of airline staff is a growing trend in Europe. In the United Kingdom, thousands of easyJet and Virgin Atlantic airline staff who are temporarily out of work are being offered jobs at the Nightingale Hospital in London, a coronavirus field hospital.
The work includes performing non-clinical tasks and helping doctors and nurses working on the wards, said the state healthcare provider, the National Health Service. Staff are paid through a job retention scheme as part of the British Government’s response to the pandemic.
Virgin Atlantic, which has cut four-fifths of its flights and has asked staff to take eight weeks of unpaid leave, said it had written to about 4,000 employees about the scheme. easyJet, which has grounded its entire fleet, has contacted 9,000 of its UK-based staff, half of whom are trained in first aid.
In Germany, Lufthansa has told its staff with relevant training that they can volunteer to help in the medical sector. “As a large German company, Lufthansa is living up to its social responsibility even in this exceptional situation,” an airline statement said.
Lufthansa employees who have completed medical training can now be released on a voluntary basis for specific work in a medical facility. The airline will continue to pay their wages during their voluntary work.
In Asia, Singapore Airlines will be providing at least 300 care ambassadors to help at hospitals. The airline says it is responding to an “urgent and growing need” to fill the gap for the care of other patients as hospital nurses focus on Covid-19 patients.
Other airlines are helping in different ways.
Delta Air Lines is offering free flights to some of the worst affected regions for medical professionals on the frontline of the fight against the pandemic. And Australia’s Qantas, which is temporarily laying off 20,000 people, is in talks with the supermarket chain Woolworths about redeploying some of its workers to help meet a surge in the number of shoppers.
"With all the demand in supermarkets right now, it is a good opportunity for our people," Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told reporters.
These temporary jobs in healthcare and retail could last until the pandemic is brought under control.
Until then, these airline angels are playing a key role in helping their communities on the ground.