I’M NOW A PART OF A FLIGHT CREW
(AND YOU CAN BE TOO... if you have 3-6 months, the ability to move anywhere, and the mental fortitude to smile whilst potentially crapping your pants…)
It’s week one of my flight attendant life, and I’ve just completed a rigorous two months of training, orientation, and general life-upheaval to follow this somewhat impulsive decision to uproot myself, my boyfriend, and all our things to travel the world. For now, we’ve landed in Denver, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about the potential hiking, skiing, and outdoor activities available to us and our future four-legged cohorts *actual furry friend(s) not to be adopted for some time, but I like to keep the hope alive.*
I’m going to be forthright and admit that when I accepted a flight attendant position with a major airline, I assumed I would float through training, have time to write during it, and bop along quite easily into my new position. I’m reasonably intelligent, physically fit, and generally good with people about 60% of the time, so what part of a crew job could possibly challenge me?
I can now admit, unabashedly, that I was very, very wrong.
Some of you may know that I have a graduate degree in creative writing – and I wholeheartedly believed that after two years spent composing a thesis and pushing my work to its extremes, any job training would rate at a difficulty level akin to my high school speech classes; meaning I’d clue in occasionally during class, read the material, do some last minute cramming and wing it from there. I did find that learning procedure and sifting through text played to my strengths; so after acing the first exam, I held an internal victory party and prepared myself for an easy few months of hotel living. Unfortunately, I hadn’t counted on the extreme physical preparation and mental stressors that an airline puts its trainees through. You might have heard rumors about the abilities flight attendants have beyond snapping open a Coke at 30,000 ft, without pouring it on your neighbor in the aisle seat and while operating with less than 3 hours of sleep, but let me clarify by giving you a few examples of our truly unique skills.
Following training, I and those in my position can:
Evacuate any aircraft I am certified on in ~90 seconds.
Why 90 seconds, you ask? Because the experts who have studied aircraft crashes believe that after 90 seconds and airplane’s likelihood of explosion increases tenfold.
Use a variety of medical equipment in any first aid emergency.
I will admit lifeguarding and sea kayaking gave me a leg up during these classes, but I was not prepared to apply this knowledge in an aircraft setting. Sure, we can page for assistance from a doctor, nurse, or medical professional, but guess who’s stitching up your gushing wound if no one volunteers? I AM! If that doesn’t make you comfortable, keep your darn seat belt on when we tell you to. I’ll ease your stress, however, by telling you that I am required to know where all equipment is located on each individual aircraft I fly – and that equipment is checked and double checked before takeoff. So please, don’t be upset if it seems like boarding is a long process. It’s for your safety that we follow these mental checklists.
Respond to an active shooter or threat to the flight deck.
We’d hope TSA would catch any potential weapons, but we’re all human, and I’m sure everyone has one story of, “well, hey, I had *insert technically illegal item* in my bag the whole time and it got through TSA, HAHA WHOOPS!”
Be your bodyguard.
A lot of people have responded to recent airline incidents by asking why the crew was not physically involved in protecting the customer – well, as a crew member I can sympathize with the staff on that plane. If Aviation Police are involved on the ground, it’s out of our hands, but in the air we operate using a different set of rules. The pilot’s job will always be to land the aircraft safely, while it is cabin crew’s to maintain decorum in the passenger section of the plane. Guess who’s staying behind a door if a passenger becomes unruly and threatening? Not us! We have security equipment to detain threats, and if you threaten any other passenger or the flight deck, it can be used. If you take issue with this, then please direct yourself to researching the events of 9/11. Overreacting to contain one person is better than risking the lives of hundreds, potentially thousands, and most of our procedures are a direct result of those events. Yes, we want to please everyone, but you can’t be as safe as possible, and as nice as possible, without some compromise.
Self-explanatory, but I bet you didn’t know how flammable planes are. Add in the oxygen bottles we stash away for potential emergencies, and it suddenly becomes clear that you have about 2 minutes to contain a fire before we start having real issues. Your takeaway from this point should be STOP SMOKING IN THE AIRPLANE. Why are folks still doing this??
Prepare the plane for a water landing.
You know, before training, I always assumed landing in water would be the preferred option if one had to choose. I think I imagined water landings would be equivalent to plopping into a sea of marshmallows, and we’d all inflate our life jackets and float happily away into the ether. Along with the theme of the rest of this post, you can imagine, I was so, so very wrong. Water acts like cement when an aircraft is speeding toward it, and since planes don’t have bottoms like boats, and are intended to land using actual landing gear, the aircrafts tend to dig in at certain points - oftentimes at the engines - which then act like giant ice cream scoops of death and rip the plane into pieces. If you’re landing in water, you’re having a bad day. BUT IT’S OKAY, because we know where to safely evacuate you if it must happen, and what each plane will have a tendency of doing when it hits water. Also, please don’t inflate your life vest before exiting the plane. If you can’t imagine why, I invite you to do a short experiment: fill your sink with water, then take out a water bottle and insert two very floaty ice cubes inside. The water bottle is the body of the plane, and the opening is one of the doorways. Slowly “crash land” your “aircraft” into the sink and push down with the weight of what we can imagine would be people, luggage, metal, etc., until your bottle starts filling with water through the “door.” If those ice cubes were life vests, do you think that the people would be able to fight against the flotation, swim down, and reach the doors at ground level? Or would they be pushed up toward the ceiling and bob like terrified, frigid ice pops while the aircraft filled with water? Just DON’T INFLATE YOUR VEST BEFORE EXITING THE PLANE, okay?
Ensure your survival on a deserted island.
You would think I’m joking, but overwater aircraft are equipped with gear to take care of you on the .000001% chance we land in the middle of nowhere. I’ve also been trained regarding the pecking order – shocker, the pilot is in charge unless she/he didn’t make it – and how to use every item that one could need to eat, build shelter, locate water, and signal to passing boats and aircraft. Are any of you Survivor fans? Don’t underestimate the flight attendants, because come week five my guess is they’ll still be building fires and fishing like a boss, all while smiling and ensuring their tribe feels accommodated and safe.
Prepare the plane for a land – landing.
This is easier than a water landing, and airplane evacuations are actually kind of fun to practice, because you get to go down giant slides – which are also flotation devices, but again water evacuations mean we are having a VERY BAD DAY so I hope you never need that knowledge. While learning these emergency procedures, we try not to think about the fact that if you can’t get it down perfectly during the time allotted, or ever can’t repeat your performance for annual testing, your flight attendant dreams will be ripped away from you and you’ll be sent packing within hours. Big smiles, everyone 😃. YAY SAFETY!
Stop human trafficking.
There was recently an article about a flight attendant who accomplished this, and saved a young woman’s life. Often, we are the first eyes to observe a group of people in confined quarters, and we are trained to look for certain signs that might signify a member or members of the party are being held against their will. Since human trafficking is a huge issue – in the United States as well – this is something we take very seriously.
Not kill you with a beverage cart.
Okay, so this sounds flippant, but a good chunk of training is spent discussing the implications of working with anything on an airplane. Turbulence causes life altering injuries to flight attendants ALL THE TIME, but more importantly, we are trained to ensure that we’re protecting YOU, our passengers. A loaded beverage cart can weight up to 300 lbs – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine the damage a rolling item of that size could cause if left unattended during taxi, takeoff, turbulence, or landing. Flight attendants have also been subject to 2nd degree burns due to flying coffee, concussions from falling pop cans, broken hands and arms from putting their bodies in front of a loose item a passenger refused to secure, which is now jetting down the aisle… you get the picture. In the air, everything becomes a hazard, so please, please, put away your laptops when we ask you to. And if we can’t give you coffee right at this moment, it’s because we honestly can’t, for your safety. Really.
SHHHHHHHH... it's okay....
And there’s so much more! Truly, though, at the end of the day none of this information should deter anyone from flying. Why? Because every single time a major airplane accident occurs, the FAA swoops in and invokes open communication policy – meaning that every airline can evaluate what exactly happened, and how it should be prevented in the future. Within months, crew will see updates to policies and plane procedures which essentially guarantee that the same event does not occur twice. Can you imagine if every time a car crashed, we were required to change the way we drive and how cars are built and manned? There’s a reason that air travel is the safest travel in the world, by huge numbers. Part of that is the crew that operates those planes, and the other part is due to the procedures we follow.
Speaking of the staff, I know my airline specifically received over 100,000 applications to become a crew member. Less than 5% are offered an opportunity to train, and my super inaccurate guesstimate is that about 75% make it through training without failing out. As one of my instructors so elegantly phrased it, “It sucks, but if a flight attendant can’t remember how to evacuate the plane, and show us that they physically can do it right, then I don’t want them flying with my family on board. No matter how nice they are.” We said goodbye to some truly amazing people who probably would have been incredible flight attendants. I like to believe they will attempt training once again and I will see them on the line, but I also know that this job is not for everyone, or every physical body.
I came into training as a previous kayak instructor and guide, who had already spent weeks of training performing rescues from a boat and had recently completed a marathon, and at no time did I ever feel I could relax. Some of this can be chalked up to the changing schedule hours intended to train us to stay awake and perform, but there were also plenty of moments after I watched others be released when I questioned my own ability to complete the program. At one point, I called my father, mid-panic, and related my experiences. He asked, with good reason, why trainees were being drilled as if they were Navy SEALs (no offense intended to the legitimacy of SEAL training, because after my own training, I can now confirm 99.99% percent of humans should not even try to be a SEAL – SEALs are amazing, I cannot comprehend how they do what they do). The answer, though, is that when we’re all stuck in the same flying metal tube, a different set of laws exist. We’re going to keep you safe, even if we irritate the hell out of you while doing it.
…. End rant and explanation. Going forward, I promise to write primarily about travel, layovers, and my experiences around the world. I am not an airline critic, nor am I an expert. I can’t help you find discounts, because my job allows me to bypass normal purchasing procedures and I already can’t remember what a normal ticket price is. If you would like to discuss airline changes, procedures or making the most of your flying, I suggest you head over to Moore with Miles, who has been flying as a business passenger for years, and is a vast wealth of knowledge regarding tips and guidelines.
For now, I’ll be hanging by the phone, waiting for my next assignment. If you see me out there, a wink and knowing smile will suffice. Who knows, you may even receive an extra complimentary snack package.
More Eshecapades on the way – hope to see you wherever I land this week.
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