Becoming a member of the cabin crew requires much more than a pretty face. Comprehensive training, a cool head and a big heart all figure into the makeup of the glamorous jet setting crew.
Words: Captain Lim Khoy Hing
In January 15, 2009, Captain Sully successfully touched down on the Hudson River after an unfortunate bird strike event. He was praised in the media for the way he handled the landing, but the other quiet hero of the day was Flight Attendant Doreen Welsh who efficiently evacuated the cabin, instructing passengers to jump over the seats in order to move forward. She was so focused on guiding her 150 passengers to safety that she failed to notice a large cut on her leg.
Flight attendants have sometimes been called ‘trolley dollies’ – a term coined at an earlier era, in reference to how the cabin crew served drinks and other refreshments from a trolley. In the early days of aviation, the job of a flight stewardess (the preferred terminology now is ‘flight attendant’ or ‘cabin crew’) was an enviable one, as it allowed these sophisticated and fashionable women to fly around the globe and stay at topnotch hotels in exotic places while visiting wonderful attractions beyond the reach of regular folks. People perceived this career to be a dream vocation.
TRIALS & CHALLENGES
However, the job is not without its challenges. The life of flight crew in general is one of constant travel, navigating time zones and combating jetlag. A flight attendant’s schedule differs with every trip. Some flights are night departures while others are day flights. Domestic flights rarely involve staying overnight, while international flights may mean between one to four days away from home.
For cabin crew, a typical day begins with a report at the flight operations centre, where they check where their airplane is parked, meet other crew members and attend a briefing by their Senior Cabin Crew to discuss any extra services needed for their upcoming
flight, such as wheelchair assistance for senior guests and special aid for couples travelling with babies and young children. Being well prepared ensures a smooth flow during the flight.
Duties once inside the plane include pre-flight checking of the cabin, and then, boarding passengers, assisting them where necessary and making sure that the aircraft compartment is ready for takeoff. Once all passengers have been boarded, a head count is performed and the cabin crew ensure all passengers are buckled up, with their belongings safely stowed for takeoff. The crew also perform a safety demonstration to ensure all guests know how to buckle and unbuckle their own seat belts, use oxygen masks if necessary, and are aware of safety protocols on board in the unlikely event of an emergency.
During the taxi – a term to describe the plane moving slowly to the runway for takeoff – a Senior Cabin Crew makes a departure announcement while the cabin crew ensure that everyone is ready for takeoff before notifying the flight crew. At this point, all cabin
crew would need to be buckled up safely as well. After the aircraft is airborne but below 10,000 feet, the ‘sterile cockpit’ rule is observed, whereby the cabin crew are not permitted to communicate with the pilots, except on essential matters that affect safety.
Once the aircraft has climbed above 10,000 feet or about four minutes after take-off, the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign is switched off, and the cabin crew begin preparing the beverage and food carts for inflight service. At cruise altitude, a beverage service is provided for passengers, and may include beverages and snacks or for longer flights, sale of meals too. During the flight, the cabin crew walk through the cabin serving drinks and meals, clearing away used cups and eating utensils, attending to passengers’ needs, and generally, ensuring the comfort of all in their charge. The flight crew usually inform cabin crew when they are approximately 30 minutes from their destination, and issue another reminder when descending below the 10,000 feet. This is to give adequate time for the cabin crew to prepare for landing and ensure that all passengers have their seatbelts securely fastened and baggage stowed away properly.
Upon landing, an arrival announcement is made, and once the aircraft is parked at the arrival gate, the cabin crew commence disembarkation and assist guests where required. Once all passengers have left the aircraft, the cabin crew perform another cabin check to make certain that everyone has deplaned and that nothing has been left behind. On short sector flights, the crew perform cabin maintenance during the 25-minute turnaround. This includes scanning the cabin for foreign items, fumigating (to conform to any health and agricultural regulations), rearranging aircraft paraphernalia, cleaning the seats, and doing it all quick enough to be ready for the next batch of guests!
A lot happens in a single day and it can be pretty exhausting as cabin crew are often on their feet the whole time.
Cabin crew are always on the frontline of customer service and are an important bridge between guests and the airline. Yet few realise that the exemplary service they’re accustomed to comes only secondary to a flight attendant’s priorities – the first of which is safety.
Flight attendants are trained to be proficient in using safety equipment, such as fire extinguishers, first aid kits, and defibrillators, and must be able to perform basic medical assistance like CPR. They’re also required to memorise the layout and emergency exits on each aircraft type. Before they can be confirmed as members of the cabin crew, candidates have to demonstrate their ability to handle everything from first aid to other life-saving duties in a calm and professional manner. To ensure that they’re always up-to-date, cabin crew undergo a refresher course every year.
You may also have noticed cabin crew requesting guests to return their seats to an upright position, open window shades and switch off electronic devices prior to takeoff and landing. These are necessary safety protocols that the crew are tasked with enforcing.
Cabin crew are also trained in soft skills to defuse and deescalate any tense situation on board before it gets out of hand. Failing that, they are trained to restrain unruly guests, but this is only the last resort. And, cabin crew only do this if they believe a person to be a threat to the rest of the guests on board.
In the heyday of aviation, circa the 1960s, there were strict requirements for stewardesses. Back then, female cabin crew were not permitted to marry or have children, and were even required to retire by the age of 32! As a result, most women averaged just 18 months on the job. Today, many of these rules have relaxed. The mandatory retirement age of some airlines and marriage restrictions have been abolished. Some retired flight attendants who have had children have even been reemployed and are known as ‘flying mothers’.
Rules imposed on recruitment today are generally based on safety. For instance, for height requirements, cabin crew have to be tall enough to reach the overhead compartments. This is to ensure they are able to help passengers properly stow their baggage overhead.
At AirAsia, the typical requirements advertised for female cabin crew are a minimum height of 157cm and a maximum height of 170cm, barefoot (male cabin crew should be between 170 to 180cm tall, barefoot); fluency in English and the local language; an outgoing, vibrant and fun personality; inexhaustible smile and energy; good communication skills and a positive attitude. Cabin crew are usually aged between 20 to 35 years, and there are no restrictions on marriage or children. Here, the airline looks for natural team players who are dedicated to providing excellent service and are able to work with people of all cultures and backgrounds. This is because AirAsia’s dynamic workforce is extremely diverse, with people coming from all across the Asean region and beyond, and guests really are from all walks of life.
ACKNOWLEDGING THE UNDERAPPRECIATED
It is the responsibility of the cabin crew to ensure the comfort and wellbeing of all passengers on board throughout the journey. To do this, cabin crew undergo rigorous training to comply with the standards set globally by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
As such, the term ‘trolley dollies’ is a discourteous term that does not adequately describe the skills and responsibilities of the amazing cabin crew who dedicate themselves to the service of passengers. They deserve our utmost respect, and I, for one, am honoured to have served alongside outstanding cabin crew who prove time and again that they have both professionalism and heart. In fact, last year, AirAsia made history when it became the first low-cost airline to be awarded ‘Asia’s Leading Cabin Crew’ at the prestigious World Travel Awards (Asia & Australasia) Gala 2015. This incredible accomplishment just goes to show that low-cost does not mean compromising on quality.
If you like what you read, more stories are found in my book LIFE IN THE SKIES (Preview here) and you can purchase a copy here. To check for any latest updates or postings, you can follow my Twitter at @CaptKHLim or Facebook here