Thursday, 5 July 2012

Flight Attendants Gone Wild - vol. 1

Have you noticed a lot of crazy-flight-attendant stories lately? There was the American Airline FA who dared his passengers to leave the plane at LaGuardia after a five-hour delay. The JetBlue FAs who had a father with a tantrumming 2-year-old bounced from a red-eye.

In some respects, it's not surprising we're seeing more flight attendants snap. It's summer, flights are predictably full, everybody's hot, and a lot of airlines have cut capacity this year. The pressure-cooker of tension that airline travel has become post-9/11 just got a bit more crowded.

I'd be interested to know why these stories get so much press. We know that aviation stories in general catch people's interest. Maybe it's that in this post-9/11 world, these stories appeal to the widespread sense that air travel is a living hell. Maybe it's that we love to see anyone knocked off their perch, and it's satisfying to see flight attendants - who are often depicted as power-hungry harpies on a crusade against anyone with a BlackBerry or naughty t-shirt - freaking out and losing control.

Then there's Shane Walker. He and his wife and her (their?) extra-marital playmate were found guilty of "conspiracy to commit bestiality" recently.

All the headlines for this story led with "Flight attendant". Guess that gives the story a racier, sexier angle than if Walker had been an insurance actuary or restaurant-supply salesman.

There's still the irresistible link between flight attendants and sex that dates back to "Coffee, Tea or Me?" and "Boeing, Boeing." What's not sexy about young, attractive women in fitted skirts, nylons and heels? This time, though, it's a middle-aged male FA, and if he's living in Arizona, he's probably doing more flights to Milwaukee than to Madrid.

And similarly, this is really just a garden-variety, Middle America kind of perversion, not much different to the many couples who must be out there who "swing" except, of course, for the presence of the Golden shepherd.

That Walker was an inflight crew member doesn't materially affect the story; it's not like they were sneaking Lassie aboard so they could join the Mile-High Club together. I think the emphasis given to his occupation has more with a perverse delight the traveling public takes in seeing flight attendants - normally so composed and in control during boarding and the safety demos - taken down a peg or two.

We're seeing a lot of stories lately too of the "Are cellphones on a plane really that dangerous?" variety that are mostly the tantrums of gadget addicts resentful of flight attendants' attempts to regulate their behavior. Wonder how long it'll be before some million-miler fires back at the flight attendant who asks him to switch off for taxi "Hey, why don't you leave me alone and go home and have sex with your dog?"

Friday, 25 November 2011

In search of the Western Airlines Hunt Breakfast

One of my little fascinations, which I'd like to explore on this blog in the future, is inflight service, back in the day when you got a meal on almost every flight, it was very likely hot, and it was free.

Once upon a time, people didn't book airline ticket on price alone, and airlines knocked themselves out trying to differentiate themselves through corporate identity programs (logos and liveries on airplanes), advertising campaigns, uniforms, and inflight service. You might choose to fly TWA to Chicago because they offered steaks cooked to order in Coach, or choose Continental to Hawaii because they offered a stand-up bar (again, in Coach) on their "Pub Ships." Nowadays, you book with whichever airline's fare is $5 cheaper on Travelocity.

In trying to lure customers away from their competitors, airlines gave their inflight service departments big budgets and lots of leeway to come up with unusual, luxurious offerings. Air Jamaica had its stewardesses model for inflight fashion shows. Alaska Airlines had Gold-rush themed flights, with Gay 90s interiors and stewardesses in "period" uniforms. On the West Coast, United Airlines had "Businessmen Only" flights, where stewardesses wore evening gowns and handed out complimentary cigars. We are, after all taking businessmen and not businesswomen back then.

Inevitably, there were going to be some product offerings that were bizarre, excessive or just ludicrous. During Coronation year, 1952, BOAC (ancestor of British Airways) offered an "Elizabethan" meal service on transatlantic flights that, if I recall correctly, offered some fifteen courses, most of them meat. (Try doing that as a Buy-On-Board service). It didn't last long but roast beef, presented on a trolley with all the trimmings and carved at your seat by the Purser, was a staple of BOAC/British Airways catering for years.

One of the daffiest I've heard of was on Western Airlines, I believe back in the 1970s. They offered a "Hunt Breakfast" modelled on the substantial meal that would be served before a fox hunt in Virginia. It was a complete breakfast buffet with eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, the whole nine yards, that was served from a cart equipped with a tape recorder on which  played the bugle call that would call out the hounds. I don't recall that the stewardesses changed into hunting pinks for the service but it wouldn't surprise me in the least.

I would kill to find out if any artifacts from some of those services survive, in some employee's garage or forgotten in some musty airline warehouse. Wouldn't you love to see the insert for the flight attendant manual showing how to set up for a 15-course meal? Relics of that era in the form of dishes, glassware, etc are relatively easy to find - passengers routinely walked off their flights with their tote bags clanking with airline-branded "souvenirs" (Virgin Atlantic Airways used to label their First Class salt-and-pepper shakers 'Stolen From Virgin Atlantic'). I'd love to see some of the airline equipment that was used or hear from old-school flight attendants who remember whipping up eggs cooked to order for 30 First Class passengers in the galley of a 707. 

There were a few factors that made these onboard offerings possible. Planes weren't as full back then - when the only channels for booking were calling the airline or going to your travel agent, airlines didn't have the reach to sell every seat on every flight as they do today (or as they seem to do, if you've ever sat in a middle seat). Often, there was more space, even on narrow-body aircraft like the 707 or DC-8 - some airlines offered 5-abreast seating in Coach and might even have a third cabin, Economy, with 6-abreast. 

There were more non-stop flights, meaning you could offer the same service between Pittsburgh and San Diego as between New York and Los Angeles. With deregulation in the 1970s came the "hub and spoke" system, which means today you're changing planes more often.

People had fewer options for entertainment; if the airline offered movies, it was on a big screen at the front of the cabin which meant - hold on kids, this is going to frighten you - everyone had to watch the same thing at the same time. So meal service was intended partly to entertain and divert. I had to laugh the other day when I heard some veteran Pan Am stewardesses saying "The aim was to complete dinner service in two hours or less."

And you know, I think the fact people still had high expectations for decorum and civility played into it, too. Stewardesses wore white gloves in the terminal because their passengers would be boarding wearing white gloves. There were societal boundaries in place, which were accepted, because people understood that that meant everyone sat down when the seat belt sign was on and gave the cabin crew the time and space they needed to do their job. (Later people re-thought those boundaries when they realized those same boundaries required people with different skin colours to sit at different ends of the bus and reserved the really good jobs for people who didn't have vaginas.) Good luck telling a planeload of today's iPod-plugged, Priceline-surfing Generation Me-ers to sit down while you roll a fifteen-course meal down the aisle.

...and you can Get It too

Go anywhere where people are talking about being Flight Attendants, and pretty soon you'll run into the question, "How do I become a flight attendant"? Herein, a few of things that worked for me.

As challenging as this career can be and as much as the glamour, pay and travel benefits have been eroded over the years at many carriers, it's still one a great many people aspire to. So here's the first thing you have to prepare yourself for:

It's extremely, insanely, outrageously competitive.
Harvard University accepts about 19% of all applicants. Southwest Airlines accepts about 7% of the people who apply to be flight attendants. Of the people in my first group interview, I think two actually made it and are flying today. It's tough to get in, and it may take several tries and a lot of disappointments before you get there. But I now feel quite confident in saying that if I made it, anyone can.

Most airlines now do their recruiting online, and I think there are few things more confidence-destroying that sending in a resumé online: you slave away at the thing, drive yourself mad getting it down to two pages, lie awake at night worrying you've missed a typo, then you hit the Send button and hope to God someone gets it at the other end.

That someone at the other end might be dealing with as many as 16,000 applications, so yeah, you want to fuss over the wording and the typos. Don't rely on spell check! If you're not a spelling person, get someone else to read over your resumé and application before you send it. Whoever looks at it is looking for any reason to discard it instantly so you don't want to screw yourself this early in the game.

Be a nice person.
I hate the word nice. It's a mousy, bland, insipid way to describe something.

But,  I think it works very well describing the kind of person airlines are looking for. As Southwest Airlines says, "You can train for skills, but you can't train for attitude." 
Are you a nice-to-everyone person, or do you draw the line somewhere? Does everyone you know think of you as kind and caring? I know you're nice to your friends, your boyfriend and (I hope) your mum. How about people you absolutely can't stand? How about people who literally disgust you? Can you be nice to a 400-pound, chain-smoking, constantly-complaining quadraplegic who can't control his bladder and has just leaked on the seat? 

Have a rock-solid work ethic.
My dad worked for a government department where all the employees were unionized. He hated being part of a union. He was in the office one day and saw a secretary typing while looking at the clock at the same time - it was getting close to quittin' time. Promptly at 5:00, she turned off her typewriter, got her purse and left. Dad looked at her typewriter and saw that she'd stopped typing right in the middle of a word. The word "the".

My dad wouldn't have stopped in the middle of a word; he would have finished the paragraph, if not the whole letter, even if it meant staying a couple of minutes past 5. That story really instilled in me my Dad's work ethic and it's one I've always tried to uphold. 

I'll stay late, come in on a day off, come in on a moment's notice, do some work on my own time, volunteer for the less-desirable tasks. I'm a big believer in "no one's done until everyone's done." My airline colleagues know I'm always willing to cover a shift for them or offer everyone a coffee if I'm going. 

I read recently that some researchers have analyzed lyrics of popular love songs over the years and have found that we they now are more likely to contain words like I, me, mine than you, we, us, ours. Surely you've noticed we live in a time when everyone thinks, "It's all about me." Well, if you work on a team and for a company, it's not all about you - sometimes you have to make a bit of a personal-time sacrifice if it means getting the flight out on time or not leaving your supervisor short-handed on a long holiday weekend. I'm always prepared to do that, and it's served me well.

Do you get stressed if you're even one minute late for work? No? Wrong answer. On-time performance is everything with an airline. At my airline, one of the first things Inflight recruiting does when we apply is look at our attendance records. If you're consistently one or two or three minutes late, or have a habit of being late Sunday mornings, there's your application in the wastebasket. 

Get in the habit of being on time. Get a watch. Know how long it takes you to get from A to B so you can plan accordingly. At many, if not all, flight attendant training programs, you're kicked out if you're late even one minute, even just once, so start working on meeting that standard now.

Don't be afraid to start at the bottom.
Yes, I know, your dream is to work international flights for a big airline. I also know thousands of other people have the same dream, and that you need to get an edge on them to get where you want to go.

I was really, really lucky to land a job as a customer-service agent at the airport for the airline where I'm now going to be a flight attendant. The pay and hours are not as good as an FA's, you have to deal with long lineups and cranky boarding-pass printers and you lift a lot of heavy bags. But I got to apply as an "internal" which gets me much further ahead in line than the people who don't work for the airline. I also got to learn a lot about the airline's operations, and see a lot of flight attendant behaviour both positive and negative.

If you can get a job working landside for an airline, take it. Even if it's not the airline where you want to be flying someday. Use it as a learning experience. If you can get a job as a flight attendant at a small airline like a regional, so much the better. (If you are lucky enough to score an airline job, be sure to review Be a nice person and Have a rock-solid work ethic, above).

Keep a STARs log.
One of the guys I worked with in Airports, Martyn, went to Inflight before me, and gave me probably the best advice of all.

Airline interview questions are usually behaviour based. I was asked, for example, "Tell about a time you realized afterwards you'd made the wrong decision" and "Tell about a time you had to take over for someone who was doing it wrong." (You can find sample behavioural interview questions here).

To prepare for these questions in advance, you want to record examples where you feel you did something right in STAR format. STAR stands for Situation/Task/Action/Result. For example: 
Situation: A passenger was angry at me because he'd missed his flight.  Task: Deal appropriately with the anger and re-accommodate onto another flight. Action: I listened to the passenger respectfully and calmly re-explained our check-in cut-off time, and  told him that we would be happy to book him on the next flight to his destination. Result: The passenger apologized for getting angry and thanked me for being helpful.

I kept my STARs in an Excel spreadsheet and, following Martyn's advice, started out with sections titled Maintaining Your Poise Under Pressure, Unpopular But Right, Above and Beyond, Passenger Conflict Resolution, Co-Worker Resolution  and Taking Over When They're Wrong. Later, I found I needed to add tabs for Flexibility, Coaching, Leadership/Mentoring and Team Play.

I treated my STARs log as a diary. On the ride home each day, I'd review my day and see if there were any events that would be good to have recorded in my log. 

By getting into this habit, I started actively seeking opportunities to handle situations so that I could have a good entry for my STARs log. For example, I'd had a question in one interview about resolving a conflict with a supervisor. I tend to let things go rather than get in people's face about things so this was one that I was quite reluctant to take on. Eventually, I did have an interaction with one supervisor that was so unsatisfactory I decided to discuss it with him. 

Not only was that a good "get" for my logbook, I talked about it afterwards with a member of our Team Services office. This is a unique position in our company, not so much Human resources as support, advice and resources and morale maintenance. In that meeting, I learned quite a bit more about conflict resolution, which made me a better employee overall.

I think that no matter what field you work in now, you can build a STARs book that will help you  in your FA interview (I took mine into the interview to use as a reference, which also showed I was prepared, organized and focused).

Get people to say nice things about you.
Okay, so you always hear about the people who get because they do something wild and crazy to get noticed. Back when my airline started, one flight attendant applicant sent in her application inside a toy jetliner.

Those kinds of stunts are probably a little less workable now since applications are done online. But I did do one additional thing which, whether it actually helped in the end or not, at least helped me stand out from the crowd somewhat.

My airline has a referral program, where an employee can recommend a friend or co-worker who's applying for a position (a lot of other airlines do, too, another good reason to get in through any door open). But you can only get one referral.

A lot of people I'd worked with as CSAs had gone to Inflight, so I asked them if they would write a short "letter of recommendation". I figured if flight attendants are saying I'd be a good flight attendant, that would carry some weight. I got eleven in total, and I printed them out (sans typos and spelling errors, natch) to give to my interviewer. 

Like I said, that may or may not have made any difference, but if you know flight attendants already, ask them either to recommend you at their companies or write a short recommendation you can take to any interview. 

Get fit.
We had all heard horror stories about our airline's mandatory physical you have to pass before you start FA training. I didn't have any extra weight, but I wasn't in good physical condition either, so I splurged on a personal trainer once a week. Payoff? I had better core strength which translated into better posture and more confidence. I highly recommend it.

And do I really need to tell you....
Show up on time for your interview. Dress for business. Unless you're specifically told to come in casual clothes for an interview, you'll never go wrong with a suit. My airline's head office is very business-casual; I wore a pinstripe suit with a pocket square and I was the best-dressed guy in the joint. Ladies, a navy or black suit is perfect. (Why not wear a scarf that looks a bit stewardess-y so they can see how great you'll look in uniform?) Shoes are really important; they don't have to be fabulous, just clean, polished and in tip-top repair. Under no circumstances are you to wear flip-flops. Double-check you've brought with you anything you were told to bring, like your resumé, passport and photos.

Be nice to everyone you meet. The barista at the Starbucks downstairs from your interview may very well deserve having you rip him a new one for messing up your drink, but how's that going to look if the person interviewing you is behind you in line? 

It's almost a guarantee that you'll be asked, "So, why do you want to be a flight attendant?" I'm hearing quite often lately that "I love people and I love to travel" is the kiss of death response. My answer was something like, "As a CSA, I already give great passenger service, but I'm with my passenger only a couple of minutes. As a flight attendant, I would have the chance to give that passenger a much richer experience of my great service." 

Don't take phone calls or text during the interview and don't ask the interviewer if they'll drive you home afterwards (these have actually happened). Don't bring your mum or best friend along for support, you'll just look needy.

Relax. Relax. Relax. And be yourself.
I think at my first interview, I was so focused on being Mr. Sparkling Personality Who Stands Out From Everyone Else in the room I was too tense to really show who I was. In this interview, I was so confident (save for that 1% of me that still thought I Am Just Not Good Enough) I was able to loosen up and show my smile, my sense of humour and my people skills.

My final word.
As I've said, I wanted to be a flight attendant from the time I was 13. From the get-go, I thought I was just not good-looking enough to get the job. Guess what? I got the job anyway. So I think that if I can get this job, anyone can. 

You may be thinking you're too ugly/old/young/fat/thin/stupid/clumsy/loserish to get this job. Please, take the lesson I've learned and don't let that stop you. If I had known at 13 I was actually capable of getting this job, I'd have started a lot sooner and be flying International by now. Just try, OK? You have absolutely nothing to lose and so much to gain.

I Got It....

At 12:14pm on November 14, I was in the gym, listening to The Crew Lounge Podcast, when my phone rang - it was Inflight recruiting.

I got the job! 34 years after my first falling-in-love airline flight, I'm going to be a Flight Attendant.

I'd always thought, back in the days when I truly believed I'd never get to do this, that that moment when you get The Good News would have to be one of the best moments of the job. It was pretty damn good; I remember half hoping some of the people in the gym would come over and ask me what was so exciting. And I did something I swore I wouldn't do, which was to keep saying "Oh my God! Oh my God!" like every single person on every single one of those home-makeover TV shows when they see their room for the first time.

But here's the strange thing; as sweet as that moment was (and remember, it was pretty sweet), it wasn't quite the climax I'd anticipated. I think that's because ever since I got called to the interview, I'd listened to flight attendant podcasts, read flight attendant blogs, watched YouTube videos (in German, no less) of flight attendant documentaries, to the point where I felt like I was already an FA. I guess you could call it proof that the visualization technique actually works.

Here's another thing I never thought I'd say: positive thinking works.  I'd done a lot of concrete things to prepare for that interview - I worked out with a trainer, did a mock interview, kept meticulous notes in my STARs book (on which more later) - but in the end, I think it was feeling inside that I was One Of Those People that got me the job.

I've always pooh-poohed those people - pro athletes, for example - who make those "follow your dreams, if you believe in yourself, you can make it happen" speeches to kids. I had such a shitty self-image that, even as a kid, I thought that was a load of crap. "For someone else, maybe - not for me" was always my internal reply to those positive messages.

I was a nerdy, socially awkward, introverted and picked-on kid all through school, and I'd long believed that, if nothing else, my lack of good looks would keep me out of the running for a flight attendant job. As I got older, I started believing that my lack of social training - not going to parties or dances, not going on dates, not having friends - in high school had stunted my growth, and I was never going to be one of those vivacious, outgoing, confident, fits-in-anywhere people that I saw working as flight attendants.

So I always saw that moment of finally learning you've got The Job as one that would truly mean I'd Made It, that I was not such a loser after all. It's one reason I've pined after this job so long, even though almost everyone told me "You know, it's not as glamourous as you think...." I wasn't expecting glamour; I just wanted to feel not like Napoleon Dynamite anymore.

And here I am, accepted at last and I have to say, it kind of draws a line under all that crap I took in high school and the beatings-up I gave myself. I've finally proven myself wrong, that I can, in fact, get the thing I've always wanted more than anything else. For everyone else, being a flight attendant may not be up there on the Dream Scale with, say, astronaut or first woman president of the United States, but it was always my dream and it does feel good to have finally achieved it.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Coffee, tea, hot pants or a maxi skirt?

Anyone who's spoken to me for more than three minutes knows I Have A Little Bit Of A Thing For Flight Attendant Uniforms. (NB: it is not anything sexual).

There have been tens of thousands of words written about the allure of the stewardess uniform. For me it lies in the flight attendant's position right at the centre of the air travel experience. When you're wearing that uniform, you are IT, baby! You are the symbol of your airline, your country even, you're the magnet for the attention of your passengers and the envy of every schlub working a 9 to 5 at a desk. Yes, the check-in agents and the girls who walk unaccompanied minors to the plane wear the same uniform, but you're the one with the wings.

I spend an awful lot of time thinking about uniforms. One of my secret aspirations is to be selected to be part of the committee that chooses my company's next uniform. I don't have a background of any sort in fashion but that doesn't stop me constantly designing The Ultimate Uniform in my mind.

The Ultimate Uniform probably wouldn't happen in today's airline-business climate. The focus on the bottom line makes past uniform-committee flights of fancy like the space-bubble helmet at Braniff or National's faux-tiger winter coat way more than unlikely. One of the US majors hasn't had new uniforms in almost two decades.

And the people who wear that uniform have changed, also. Back in the day, you could tell your stewardesses they were going to wear something that could only be worn by a 19-year-old with a perfect body because they all were young with perfect bodies. I'm sure recruiters today practice a little body fascism but if they do, it's pretty subtle. Fact is you see men and women of all shapes and sizes working the aisles today, and uniform designs have to take that into account.

Still, I like to imagine myself as the CEO of the world's largest, richest, most prestigious airline, submitting the brief for my company's new uniform. These would be my minimum requirements:

- a megastar designer label, either my country's best-known designer or somebody French. Dior would be a safe bet.
- incorporate the airline's livery colours and logo into the uniform in some fashion. And the uniforms and the airplane interiors should coordinate as well.
- Similar, but distinctive, uniforms for on-board and ground personnel.
- A wide range of pieces for each crew member to choose from.
- Winter and summer uniforms, plus, while we're at it, different pieces for short-haul and long-haul flights, for those flight attendants my airline trains specifically for first class, as well as special pieces identifying my Pursers and Assistant Pursers.
- Hats and gloves. For both men and women.
- No old-lady print dresses. Especially not with pleated skirts. Blech.

Fight attendants, if you got to design your own uniform, what features would it have? You'd probably like your uniform a lot better than mine, since I would impose ironclad regulations on what you could wear and what you couldn't, complete with uniform supervisors at check-in at each base and a network of company spies who'd rat out anyone trying to sneak in the winter scarf with the summer jacket, or non-regulation earrings.

It's probably best I'm not destined for the executive floor.

This is is your Senior Cabin Service Officer speaking

Good evening everyone, and welcome aboard The Stewardist. It's my pleasure to be serving you today and in the future.

I was a peculiar child. Ocean liners were an early obsession, followed by zeppelins, but I pretty much forgot about everything else when I flew from Edmonton, Alberta to London Gatwick about a Wardair Canada Boeing 747. I had never flown before, AND I was traveling as an Unaccompanied Minor, so the excitement for a shy, solitary kid from the prairies was pretty intense. I sent six weeks in England and about six months talking about the two flights I'd taken. Susi, the First Stewardess on my return flight, let me hand out breakfast trays on the upper deck and from that moment on I was pretty much smitten with everything to do with airliners, airlines and inflight service. I never seriously wanted to be a pilot, just a flight attendant.

That was 34 years ago. Today, I am at last airline-employed and quite possibly on the verge of joining my airline's Inflight division. This blog will be about my adventures as a flight attendant (if in fact I get to have any) but I'll also try to share with you my fascination with anything to do with the back end of the airplane, especially in the sexy and sophisticated era when you could fly to Hawaii on 747 with a lounge in Economy class, a new stewardess uniform might come with 58 pieces from which stewardesses could choose, and there was lots of walnut-patterned laminate everywhere.