American Airlines Phoenix flight attendant dies of COVID-19

Almost a month after American Airlines’ Phoenix-based flight attendant Phyllis Adair lost her life to COVID-19, her son George and daughter-in-law Catherine are still making sense of their loss and controlling how their absence has changed their lives .

“It’s the fact that she’s gone,” said George Adair, his voice trembling.

Phyllis is one of 500,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19 since it surfaced in the United States in January 2020.

Just days after Phyllis’ death, her story was featured in a Congressional subcommittee hearing as an example of the challenges flight attendants and airline employees face as Congress considers passing another extension of the paycheck protection program.

After reading the coverage of the hearing, her family wanted to share why her 79-year-old mother was working during the pandemic.

“She flew 150 hours a month because she needed the money to pay for her house and get help looking after her husband,” Catherine Adair told the Republic of Arizona.

“She loved her job”

In 1997, the year George graduated from high school, Phyllis got a job at America West Airlines in the reservations department. A few years later she became a flight attendant.

Phyllis Adair was a flight attendant at American Airlines and died of COVID-19 on February 2.  She is shown in an undated family photo with her granddaughter Ann Marie.

Over the years the uniforms changed. America West became US Airways, which became American Airlines.

Phyllis continued to work during all the mergers. George said a bad business decision by his father Francis left the couple with no retirement savings and they continued to work to support the household.

She also loved to travel.

“She loved her job. She loved being a flight attendant, ”said George.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Catherine said her mother-in-law was very careful because Francis has dementia and her granddaughter has medical problems too.

“Any of them who get this could kill them too,” Catherine said.

But without having saved enough to retire, Phyllis had to keep working to support herself and her husband.

“They have no savings or no retirement outside of social security,” said Catherine.

The last time George saw his mother well was on Christmas Eve, when the family had dinner together in a restaurant.

On Christmas morning, Phyllis went to work.

On December 28, George tested positive for COVID-19 and the family went into self-quarantine.

“When she got home I want to say that we didn’t see her on the Monday after Christmas because we were afraid of exposing her to George, who is sick,” said Catherine.

Difficult to determine number of exposed flight attendants

George Adair hugs his wife Catherine at their Buckeye home on February 14, 2021.  George's mother, Phyllis, was a flight attendant at American Airlines and died of COVID-19 on February 2.

Without reliable contact tracing, it is unknown how Phyllis contracted the virus.

Airlines believe their planes are safe and routinely refer to studies like the one showing that airplane filter systems turn the air every two to three minutes as evidence.

However, many other aspects of air travel can be exposed to the novel coronavirus, especially for flight attendants who carry hundreds of passengers every day.

Meanwhile, due to the widespread community prevalence and low contact tracing in the US, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where an employee may have been exposed.

“I think the greatest balance for both Americans and all airline unions is balancing the desire to return the travel request with our safety,” said Paul Hartshorn Jr., communications chairman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.

APFA is the union that represents American Airlines’ 24,000 flight attendants at 11 crew bases across the United States.

Hartshorn said preventive measures advocated by the union, such as requiring masks on board, better aircraft cleaning and hand sanitizer distribution, have helped change the course of cases among employees.

“It was much worse in the summer,” Hartshorn said of airline employees who were infected with the virus. “It’s trending with the rest of the country right now.”

Phyllis falls ill with COVID-19

George Adair and his wife Catherine, daughters Sarah Pittman (left) and Anne Marie, son George Jr., and father Francis sit at their Buckeye home on February 14, 2021.  George's mother, Phyllis, was a flight attendant at American Airlines and died of COVID-19 on February 2.

George and Catherine hadn’t seen Phyllis since December 24th when he was recovering from the virus. During this time Phyllis had two work trips.

On January 11, Phyllis called George after returning home early from a trip to Mexico City. She wasn’t feeling well. George said she told him she had to be taken off her flight to Miami in a wheelchair.

“I took her down to get a test,” said George. “And we found out that she has COVID.”

A few days later he went to her house to check on her and noticed that her lips were looking a little blue. Phyllis refused to go to the hospital.

“At this point George says, ‘You go if I need to pick you up and get you in the car.’ So she finally admitted. She went to the hospital, “Catherine said.

After several weeks in the hospital that included time on a ventilator, Phyllis died on February 2nd.

“American Airlines is deeply saddened to hear the death of Phyllis Adair, a longtime flight attendant who has been revered and respected across the airline. Our thoughts and prayers go with Phyllis’ family and loved ones during this difficult time, “American Airlines said in a statement to the Republic.

How is the family doing

George Adair combs his father Francis' hair in their Buckeye home on February 14, 2021. George takes care of his father, who has dementia after his mother, Phyllis, an American Airlines flight attendant, contracted COVID-19 on February 2 has died.

While George and Catherine still mourn the loss of their matriarch, they have become full-time carers for Francis.

It’s not a completely unfamiliar role. The two of them looked after him part-time while Phyllis was away for work. But without Phyllis and her income, they cannot keep Francis logistically or financially alone in his house.

So they took him to their two-story house in Buckeye.

When they figured out how to adapt their home to Francis, they became part of a generation sandwiched between caring for a parent and raising their three children, ages 2 to 12.

Burdened by this challenge, George pains over his daily phone call with his mother.

“I can’t do that anymore,” he said through tears.

You can contact Melissa Yeager, the Republic of Arizona consumer reporter, by email at [email protected]. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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