In the eyes of a flight attendant – Arushi Treanor, James Allen’s Girls School
We’ve all seen glamorous flight attendants on TV smiling and waving, but what it’s really like to be a flight attendant, dealing with emergencies and to nervous passengers?
I spoke to a commercial flight service manager and a private jet flight attendant to understand their job, highlights, challenges, how covid has influenced the flight industry and training . But first, what are they actually doing and how did they start to fly?
Louise works for the commercial airline Virgin as a Flight Services Manager. Louise has worked at Virgin for 23 years and is solely responsible for flight service during the flight. This means that she ensures the welfare and safety of around 18 crew members during the entire trip depending on the size of the aircraft.
“As soon as that door closes, it’s basically my cabin.”
Louise’s aunt worked for an airline, and Louise wanted to “be like (her) aunt, who was so glamorous”. The only things that interested him in school were learning languages and geography. She loved to travel and wanted to see the world (and getting paid for it seemed like a really good perk too!).
Leanne is a permanent freelance flight attendant who works on private jets. Leanne is the only flight attendant during the flights. She started at 19 and has been flying ever since. Leanne has always “wanted to be a table lady on a plane“, and also has a love for travel, so she followed her dream and applied for a job.
The main difference between Louise and Leanne’s jobs is that Louise works for a commercial company and Leanne is private. A commercial enterprise focuses on transporting the general public safely, whether for business or vacation. In a private company, passenger comfort is the priority. Private planes are chartered to a person who has priority over the soul of the plane. The owner runs a business and uses a broker to promote his aircraft to his clients. A broker educates clients about business, just like a travel agent helps you decide which vacation to choose. As the private is more expensive, it comes with more flexibility and exclusivity.
Training is a big part of a flight attendant’s career because safety is paramount. Louise has regular training sessions and is tested on this learning with annual exams, which allows her to renew her license annually. On top of that, there are other rigorous tests, with the crew being interviewed every day on different aviation topics.
Leanne re-does her first aid and fire and safety test that takes place every year, and the two attendants also have physical tests.
Obviously, working on planes is not a regular 9 to 5 job, and it can vary depending on your role and contract. For Louise, who works part-time, she has a 9-day-per-month contract, which generally consists of 2 trips per month. An example of this would be to fly to LA and spend 2 days there before returning, which would add up to a total trip of about 4 days. Then she takes a short trip to Boston or New York, and then she’s finished her monthly shift. Louise flies off to her 3 young children, but with these flexible hours, babysitting can be difficult.
On the other hand, Leanne is self-employed so she can choose how many days per month she works because it’s flexible, which averages around 7 days, and she gets paid based on the days she works. If Leanne wanted, she could work every day as there are no restrictions other than your own fatigue and your sanity of course.
So, the big question; what was it like to fly in 2020? No passengers, no flights and no income. Louise’s company stopped all flights to the Far East and “thought it was the end, until it started to spread…”. After this theft, which would be Louise’s last for about 18 months (unbeknownst to her). Louise was fired and informed her that she would return to her job in December 2022, along with many of her colleagues on a global conference call. Virgin CEO Richard Branson spoke: “With a very heavy heart and he said, ‘This is more serious than we expected.’ “. After that, the situation got worse and worse, with the borders being closed and another number of employees put on leave. Soon the only planes in service were cargo flights carrying drugs and PPE to Asia and Africa, which did not have them readily available. The company lost its major airlines and shrank into a corporate backbone. Fortunately, Louise now has a 6-month temporary contract starting in a week, despite the company telling her that she will be back in her job in December 2022. Currently, airports have machines that sterilize everywhere every night, and planes have deep cleanings after each flight. There are also plastic shields at airports, and the larger plane pumps and circulates purified air around. Masks are mandatory on the flight, the crew passes covid tests during registration, and is therefore exempt from the covid tests that passengers must pass.
Leanne continued to work throughout Covid and while there was a change in passengers and their reasons for flying, it was not a dramatic change. There were people desperate to find their families and a few workers, mainly in the oil rig industry. People who usually flew in private planes didn’t mind paying extra for testing and a silent terminal. In the world of private jets, masks are worn based on passenger comfort and are not mandatory, and gloves are additionally used when Leanne is preparing food. The plane is sprinkled once a month by an outside company to create a layer of anti-virus protection spray, and the crew performs lateral flow tests. The crew was given priority to be vaccinated early and are also exempt from passenger covid testing.
“It’s such a safe environment – no one has covid on this little plane.”
One thing that has changed more drastically, although more as a result of Brexit, is the length of flights, Leanne said. Instead of staying where they flew for a few days and having long flights, they often come back the same day and only do day trips now.
Working in the flight industry is tough work, whether you are a pilot, flight attendant, or CEO. It can harm your mental and physical health. For Louise, her loss of job was a great mental strain and she “went through a huge period of mourning.”
“(My job) was my life”
The return will also be difficult, with a lot of practice to do and although it is exciting, the crew is much smaller and the planes are far fewer.
For Leanne, there was a fear of losing her job and still is. The owner is still trying to make money, and that can be difficult in times of covid for the theft industry.
“I had a little wobble a few weeks ago.”
In the world of private jets, while the advantages stand out, it is clear that jobs do not always come with stability and regular income. Leanne’s colleague, a helicopter pilot, was suddenly fired due to low profits and the owner selling the helicopter. It’s almost scary how quickly this is happening. The pilot was doing a great job, but it’s not his fault, he’s now redundant.
Leanne also has to prepare all of the food which “is the hardest part”, and that includes contacting food companies, researching ingredients, preparing food, submitting menus, researching food preferences…. The list is lengthened increasingly. Leanne described it as if “you are hosting in your kitchen, but in the air”. For Leanne, once on board it’s more enjoyable, however, the flight takes its toll on your body. You’re constantly moving around in a confined space, reaching various nooks and crannies of the moving plane, leaving a sore body the next day!
While Leanne may command her longer hours, being away from her family for long periods of time is difficult.
“There is always a lot of company, but there is a loss of physical contact
and missing relatives. It can get quite lonely at times.
Many passengers suffer from aerophobia: fear of flying. Louise spoke about the training they do, to be prepared for all passengers, like those who are nervous. While flying can be scary, there have been no emergencies in Leanne’s 23 years of theft, and Louise has only had one, which ended well. “Airplanes are such safe machines,” Louise confirmed, and “I just feel at home on an airplane, and I feel the safest on an airplane.”
A major event that shook the world was September 11. It was a scary time for everyone, but especially for those who were flying. Louise was working in a large plane on the upper deck after the attack, with 2 famous people on board, on her way to Washington. Questions piled up on her, the passengers alarmed and alert. The disaster struck and there was a power cut in New York City, which was initially seen as just another attack. It became too much, during the demonstration, for Louise, who burst into tears on the plane.
“You have to take care of the passengers, but you also know
You have a family at home yourself.
Leanne was working overseas at the time and couldn’t believe the news. Where she was, the news was hardly ever relevant in the UK, and to Leanne it didn’t seem true. But it was true, and it was terrifying.
Along with the challenges come highlights as well, which Louise and Leanne spoke about, smiling as they recall happy memories. Louise smiled as she told me stories about flying with Richard Branson in his private jet and being invited to “cool parties in LA” by famous people. She also talked about reuniting families, which she looks forward to when she returns to work.
Leanne loves going to weird places you would never go if you were on vacation yourself and being able to see the world. And sometimes, if the plane was going for maintenance, the crew would eat good food, even drink champagne.
No one knows exactly what the future of flight will look like; electric planes, invisible helicopters, anything could happen. But one thing that will remain the same for Louise and Leanne is their love of travel.