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Cabin Crew Fever

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Thirteen cabin crew members are about to perform an emergency landing. Seated and buckled into their jump seats, they scream: “Bend down! Hold your knees!” The plane shakes a bit and the attendants jump out of their seats. After calling for backup they check the doors of the aircraft and open them quickly – the airline industry standard is to have all passengers evacuated from a plane within 90 seconds — before helping people down the inflatable slides. They then slide down themselves.

The only thing that suggests this isn’t a real flight are the female flight attendants’ clothes — the women are dressed in oversized, prison-like Etihad-issue grey jumpsuits (but still have on the requisite full make-up and hair in a snood bun); the men are in their trademark, Dr Evil-style mandarin-collared suit jackets and trousers. And, of course, there are the big mats at the bottom of the slides, strategically placed to prevent the crew from hitting their derrières on the concrete floor.

Yet everything else about this “flight”, which has just taken place in a loft-like building near Abu Dhabi International Airport, suggests the experience is real. It’s a specially-constructed flight simulator designed to look just like a cross-section of an Airbus-A330 aircraft: it comes complete with doors, seats, a public address system and overhead lighted signs (seat belt, no smoking); in the fire simulation room on the ground floor, there’s a glassed-in cross-section, with rows of seats complete with overhead compartments and a bathroom. There is a control table outside of the plane interior that, with the touch of a button, ignites fires in the seats, inside the overhead compartments, or in the toilets.

Yet outside of the glass wall, crew members watch their compatriots put out fires. Two by two, the flight crew practise putting out the fires and practising techniques while the same instructor calls out “go!” First, one of the pair grabs a fire extinguisher, placed exactly where it would be inside of a real aeroplane, while the other calls for backup (using the code word “halo” for “get the fire extinguisher”). One assists and another extinguishes the fire, but not before they have checked to determine how bad it is before opening the bathroom door or the overhead cabin. But the scale of this fire, inside one of the seats, is plainly evident.

The instructor observes from inside the cabin, relaying his voice to those outside via a microphone headset of the kind Madonna wore in her 1990s Like A Virgin tour. He then critiques their fire safety techniques while a super-powered fan blows the smoke out of the glassed-in cabin. The instructor reminds them that it is acceptable, in certain circumstances, to use non-alcoholic drinks to extinguish a fire if there is a beverage cart handy. The crew and the teacher step outside of the glass wall again and get the next pair ready for their turn to check, call for backup and put out fires.

It’s just a routine morning at Etihad Airways’ new flight training centre: in other exercises throughout the day, dozens of cabin crew will be trained on everything from delivering babies to serving food, putting on make-up to landing on water. Each year, all of Etihad’s 3,500 cabin staff will attend the centre at some point, but new recruits all have an intensive, eight-week course to start off with – two weeks longer than most airlines offer. It’s a huge commitment, but it’s necessary. The airline’s rapid expansion makes the training of cabin crew critically important. “Cabin crew are basically the face of the airline,” said Michael Lewin, one of Etihad’s training controllers. “Passengers spend up to 15 hours (in the case of a flight to New York or Toronto) with cabin crew, so they are incredibly important.” What makes Etihad different than its competitors, he argues, is the way the cabin crew reacts to its guests and anticipates their needs. “It’s about making sure that every single guest that boards the aircraft gets eye contact from the crew and someone welcoming them on board, regardless of whether they sit in economy [or first class].”

Etihad carries some of the world’s richest and most demanding passengers in a market where there is ferocious competition between airlines to gain and retain clientele. “The travelling public these days are much more demanding, and rightfully so,” Lewin added. “They expect a lot because there are so many fantastic carriers out there that give a lot. And once they’ve received a certain level of service, you can’t take that away. It’s the same in the hospitality industry anywhere – once you’ve been to a fantastic hotel it’s difficult to stay at a hotel that’s not quite as fantastic.”

But who, in this world of demanding passengers, security checks and cost-cutting within the airline industry, would want to become a cabin crew member? Back in the 1960s, when only a select few could afford to fly, (as recounted in the memoirs the two “swinging stewardesses” Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones, Coffee, Tea or Me) airline crew were glamourpusses who travelled the world bewitching legions of important men who frequented their planes for business trips. Now the process of flying is so full of fear and aggravation that even passengers dread it.

Thomas Clarke, a press officer for Etihad, said that having a gregarious, “can-do” attitude was essential to providing professional and intuitive service. “Leadership and initiative are key. We need people who can think on their feet, because that’s what passengers look for.”

Most of the Etihad trainees I spoke to seemed to have a passion for flying and having fun, in equal measure. Katherine Harris, 27, from Sydney, Australia, has been a flight attendant for a year, after switching from her previous career as a nurse. “In comparison to my previous job, it’s great,” she said. “It’s a fun and social life and you’re seeing the world. You have fun in the air, you have fun on the ground and you have fun on your layovers. And you’re meeting so many different people.” It’s a view echoed by Keira Wright, 22, also from Australia and also an Etihad employee for the past year. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do, that and travel the world,” she said. Despite the fact that the work isn’t as glamorous as it once was, Wright was surprisingly upbeat. “It’s hard work and sleeping during the day and flying at night is very hard, but it’s also rewarding.”

There are, of course, some serious safety issues involved. Bianca Lau, a petite, 24-year-old new recruit from Hong Kong, said that despite training, she wondered how she would deal with an intoxicated passenger. “I am quite scared that I wouldn’t know what to do on-board,” she said. “We passed exams and everything but when you’re actually on board it’s a different environment. Hopefully I’ll be OK.” Hadi Hattar, the manager of safety training for the airlines, elaborated on one of flight attendants biggest annoyances. “Managing disruptive people is stressful for the crew because they have to deal with it throughout the flight or if it goes beyond that, they have to divert somewhere,” he said. “If it happens on the flight, we train the crew in conflict management – how to deal with people nicely and politely – because we are service people and we have to treat people with respect at every point, even when they are disruptive.”

Stephanie Jones, a 30-year-old French-manicured Australian blonde, who has been an Etihad flight attendant for three years, said having a “good personality” was essential for cabin crew. “You have to be very social, to interact and to be able to communicate well,” she said.

Claire Khalifé, a safety training teacher who has worked with Etihad since it launched, said that the travelling public and some potential recruits were naive about the sort of work cabin crew endure. “Everybody thinks that you just go modelling on the aircraft, walking in the aisle two or three times then you go to a five-star hotel,” she said. “But if you are a passenger on the aircraft, you feel tired after a flight, so imagine if you’re working and you can’t sleep and it’s a night flight; it’s not easy.”

Jones agreed, saying that the hardest part is working overnight flights. “Our night flights depart at three o’clock in the morning and it’s difficult to remain alert for the time you’re supposed to be sleeping,” she says. What’s her trick for staying awake? “Drink lots of coffee!” she enthuses, later admitting that she will chat with colleagues, walk around the cabin or even clean the galley to keep herself awake – all in heels and dressed to the nines.

Lau from Hong Kong said the thing that surprised her the most at the Etihad academy was the grooming class for cabin crew. “I never expected that they would put such a specific emphasis on grooming; you have to have the exact shade of lip colour,” she says. “It has to be that specific shade like bright red and I’ve never really used lipstick before so I was like, ‘I don’t know what that’s going to look like.’”

Etihad’s female cabin crew are certainly immaculately turned out, in their grey skirt suits and snappy grey cap with the attached white veil.

“You wake up, you put your make-up on and you do your hair,” says Jones, who says she doesn’t stress about the idea of looking perfect during a 15-hour overnight flight. “It’s just a routine now.”

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