"What you don't know is just how epic this is for us," the flight attendant told me, as I congratulated her on how she had spoken to the passengers. "Yes," I replied. "It’s epic for all of us."
The flight attendant was referring to being on the first and last low-cost repatriation flight to Argentina. The carrier was Flybondi, who were amazing, even from the first moment when they picked us out of the check-in line because my husband is grey-haired. They placed us, and other anyone else with grey hair, in the front rows of the plane. This is because the virus affects older people worse. We felt a little more cared for, as well as incredibly lucky to be able to travel at all.
But what impressed me the most was the leadership and gravitas shown by the main flight attendant of our crew. When the door of the plane closed in São Paulo, Yamila introduced herself and told us how she was going to follow the protocol and how this, in her words, was "epic for Flybondi."
FlyBondi, for those who are not familiar with it, is a low-cost airline that offers domestic flights in Argentina and neighbouring countries. It operates out of El Palomar, a small airport in the west of Buenos Aires Province.
This was no regular flight either. There were no longer any flights from countries affected with Covid-19 after the Argentine government ordered a nationwide lockdown on March 19. The flight brought together people who came from all over the world and were taking it back to Buenos Aires as their only option to repatriate. We were all in a state of tension and exhaustion, but also relief and happiness at being able to go home.
Yamila explained that the crew was going to wear masks and gloves ,for their safety and ours. She asked us to stay in our assigned seats and to remain calm. Once again she spoke about what this flight meant for the airline. She told us that for FlyBondi it was an honour and a responsibility to repatriate us.
Following the protocol required by the Argentine Health Ministry, one hour before landing the crew distributed a form where we had to fill in our data and indicate if we had any symptoms of the disease. The crew then proceeded to collect the filled-in forms.
As my husband and I were in the front row we could see how the crew were carefully reading the completed forms. Soon after, they requested that around eight passengers turn on their flight attendant button, to identify where they were seating. Yamila privately told us that these people had symptoms of the disease. And that as soon as we landed, they were going to do a health check-up.
Before landing, Yamila spoke again, telling the passengers that we were going to get off the plane in groups of 10 to preserve social distancing. She asked for a round of applause for the pilot and the crew. The pilot spoke too, and spoke well, but it was the main flight attendant who, through her calm and composure, showed the most leadership. In a moment of heightened tension, we passengers felt safe with her and her crew. It was obvious that she was afraid too, but she faced that fear with a lot of courage, inspiring everyone to be part of something bigger and more important: getting us all home safely.
Upon landing in El Palomar, a fully suited-up medic came on board and the eight passengers who had been picked out left with him. That was a tough moment, because we realised that we could all have been infected. In groups of 10 we descended from the plane, filled in one more form and went through immigration to the warm and strangely silent night of Buenos Aires Province.
Since then, we have been complying with the rules of quarantine, in total social isolation for 14 days. Every time I think of those moments, I realise just how important it is to communicate clearly in times of crisis. As what we are all experiencing is epic, in the true sense of the word.
* Joanna Richardson is a clear communications consultant. A British native, she is an Argentine citizen who has made Buenos Aires her home. On this occasion she had travelled, along with her husband, to the United Kingdom in early March to celebrate her father's 80th birthday. The celebration was postponed and she realised quickly that she had to return to Argentina. The Argentine consulate in London advised repatriation and she and her husband were able to purchase tickets for one of the last flights back to Buenos Aires.