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Peggy Lehn: The View From The Transatlantic Cockpit

Normally, this would be an inspirational, upbeat story: Female Staples graduate, now in her 33rd year flying for American Airlines, surveys the skies from her captain’s cockpit.

But after 4 round trips across the Atlantic Ocean since early March, Peggy Lehn has some harrowing tales to tell.

Peggy Lehn and her brother Tom. He’s a 1985 Staples High School graduate — and also an American Airlines pilot.

On March 2, the 1979 Staples grad — whose family has been in Westport for around 11 generations (her grandmother was born on the property that is now Longshore) — flew her 777 from JFK to Barcelona.

Her crew had never seen Las Ramblas — the city’s main boulevard — so empty. Shop and restaurant owners stood on the street, urging the few customers to enter.

After flying back to the US 2 days later, Peggy quarantined herself. “Who knows?” she wondered.

Pilots are exempt from longer isolation rules, however — and none were in place then anyway — so on March 7 she left JFK for Paris. The trip from Charles de Gaulle to the downtown airport usually takes an hour. This time, it was 18 minutes.

American Airlines encouraged the crew not to eat in restaurants, but rather buy food and bring it back to the hotel.

On March 9 she flew back to New York.

The new normal in Paris.

Peggy’s third trip was March 12, again to Paris. On the 14th she flew back to JFK. As she landed, she was told the plane would be met by the CDC. She was instructed to tell passengers to remain seated. Everyone would be tested.

Her flight was the first to arrive in the US after the travel ban. Port Authority police, wearing masks, met the plane. They waited 40 minutes for CDC officials. Wearing plastic visors, they handed forms to fill out. They told everyone to self-quarantine.

One at a time, passengers exited the aircraft. Each had their temperature taken. Another official wrote down the results.

It took 70 minutes to unload the entire plane, which was not even full.

On March 15 — Sunday — Peggy made her 3rd trip to Paris this month. Normally, she says, there are many flying “tracks” — routes — over the Atlantic. This time, there were only 3.

There was none of the usual chatter among pilots, because “there was nobody out there.” When she landed at Charles de Gaulle, she saw no other planes.

In the city she found just one small spot to eat in the normally bustling hotel; it served only coffee and pre-made salads. There were long lines at grocery stores. Shelves were bare. She finally found a bit of pasta to bring back to microwave.

On Monday, Peggy watched French president Emmanuel Macron address the nation. He told his citizens they had to face the virus like a war. She was impressed with his words and actions.

By the time Peggy arrived back at JFK yesterday, the CDC and Port Authority had a better grasp of handling international flights. Passengers came off in groups of 10.

Planes are usually full this time of year, Peggy says. Her aircraft holds 272 people. Yesterday, there were 206. Many were American Airlines personnel.

American Airlines 777.

That was Peggy’s last transatlantic flight for a long time. Her March 28 trip has been canceled. She’s scheduled now domestically: Dallas, Los Angeles and the like.

Her airline will offer leaves — some paid, some unpaid. They’ve already stopped hiring.

“Everything changed in a week and half,” Peggy says.

Fortunately, no one on any of her flights appeared to be ill. She is happy too to see people in Westport taking the coronavirus seriously.

Peggy hopes our nation — and town — have learned from the experiences of other countries.

“Think of this virus as if you already have it,” Peggy says. “Live your life that way. Don’t give it to anyone else. Change the way you live.”

She already has.

Her 88-year-old mother lives in Westport too. These days when Peggy visits, she waves at her mom through a window.

(For a 2015 story on Peggy Lehn and her career, click here.)

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