As we hurtle toward the maybe-it-will-happen-maybe-it-won’t holiday travel season, let’s check in on the state of the friendly skies.
The number of airline passengers may have dropped by 96 percent at the height of the pandemic, but planes still took off. And when flight attendant Molly Choma realized she was one of the few remaining flight attendants working, she knew she had to document it, both to create an archive of what life was like for her and her colleagues, and also as a way for her to process what was going on.
“The pattern of human resilience is amazing,” the San Francisco-based freelance photographer, 33, told Insider earlier this year. “But it’s really important to have these times on some sort of record.”
With her Nikon camera, the Alaska Airlines employee recorded scenes on the ground and up in the air during the first peak of the coronavirus crisis this spring.
Choma called them “heavy.” And “surreal.” And “weighted,” too.
She shoots only consenting fellow flight attendants, never passengers, and some evocative tableaus are recreated from what she observed when the flight attendants were working. She then posts them on her Instagram feed with descriptive captions that documented the increasing severity of the situation as spring wore into summer
“Every passenger takes pictures of how empty the planes are as soon as they realize they get their own row, own bathroom, own flight attendant and a whole can of whatever they want,” she wrote in a photo posted on March 28. “By now I’ve been to most of the quarantined cities feeling like I’ve survived some sort of apocalypse.”
On April 5, before mask mandates were commonplace, she wrote: “Flight attendants are now allowed to wear masks while on duty… Most of the passengers have masks to and from the airport and then half of them actually keep it on the whole flight. Or at least that’s how it seems. I think most people are just happy the flight didn’t cancel.”
In those early days, Choma’s flights ranged between eight and 12 passengers, often essential medical workers or relatives flying to say goodbye to loved ones.
Behind her mask she still wears red lipstick, in part to remind her to crack a smile. “Now that we’re required to wear masks outside of our homes in SF, we’re trying to figure out how to convey a kind smile through a mask,” she wrote. “Any ideas?”
In another post, Choma explained what she does on the empty flights with no passengers. “I spend some time sitting in the back and minding my own business,” she wrote. “I spend other time washing my hands and managing PPE. Sometimes I just sit, looking out a window and sifting through all the possible outcomes of this strange, strange time.”
There is a somber tone in the emptiness of Choma’s photos, especially in vast airports. “This is my crew walking to our cars after a Seattle turn,” she captioned an image showing herself and two colleagues walking through a high-ceilinged SFO terminal, the only humans in the frame. “It feels like something is wrong but you didn’t get the memo, so you’re searching for the cause of the emptiness. But there is nothing to be seen.”
Choma is aware of the risks she took by continuing to fly throughout the pandemic. “I’m younger. I’m healthy,” she told Insider. “I don’t have kids. I don’t have a family or anyone that relies on me financially.”
She keeps working because she sees the necessity of the flights — passengers that need to get from one place to another — and so she masked up and boarded a plane nearly every day in March. “For the few flights that are left,” she said, “it’s really important for people who can and are willing to keep showing up to work.”
These days, Choma has also captured the ominous orange skies caused by the West Coast wildfires.
“Sometimes I feel compelled to take pictures just to make sense of the world around me,” she wrote in September about a series of images of SFO taken between 2 and 4 p.m. “Today was one of those days.”