Airline tragedies have made many afraid to fly, but for cabin crew like Christine it’s still her dream job
Published 26/08/2014 | 10:33
It's the last couple of weeks of summer, the rain has been constant and the children are bored. Many of us are planning to beat the dull days by jetting off for some last-minute sunshine. The skies aren't quite the safe place they used to be.
The strict security conditions in place since the attacks on September 11, 2001 notwithstanding, the media has been full of plane malfunctions — and, worse, tragic crashes. Recently, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished without a trace en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, while sister ship Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down on a routine journey from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. There were no survivors from either plane. In this jet-setting age, there are hundreds of cabin crew working out of Northern Ireland's three major airports, with still more commuting to airports in Britain on a regular basis. We ask three cabin crew about life behind the scenes in the skies.
Christine Wright (55) is customer service leader for British Airways. She lives in Lisburn with her husband, Michael, and her children Emma (27) and David (20). She says:
I now commute to work – I started off in short-haul from Belfast, but now I work in long-haul in London. After 9/11, they closed the base in Belfast. I had a choice to transfer over, or take redundancy, but I just couldn't do that. I have flying in my blood and I couldn't imagine doing anything else.
I started off working for the hospital service in Lisburn. It was a friend of my husband, Michael, who told me about applying to be cabin crew and I decided to go for it. I got the job and that was 31 years ago. I haven't looked back since.
Short-haul worked out very well for me because the children were very young. If I didn't see them in the morning, then I would see them in the evening.
The change to long-haul took a bit of getting used to. We would have layovers that could last a long time. You could be in Australia for 21 days, although now the longest you'll be there for is about nine days.
The best thing about British Airways at the moment is that they're moving the flights from Belfast from Terminal One at Heathrow to Terminal Five – that saves me a bit of a trip between terminals when I get to the airport.
The shortest flight we do would be to Moscow and the longest are to places like Hong Kong and Australia – anything over four hours is considered long-haul.
When we fly, we choose our positions on the plane according to seniority and I tend to choose working in first class. It's funny how you get used to things, though. We get tired of the steak and lobster served there and ask for the world traveller section to send us up some chicken curry, which is delicious.
The best parts of the job are certainly the destinations. There's only a couple of places that I fancy that I haven't been to. I love going to America for the shopping and the food. I think I've nearly seen all of the Seven Wonders of the World.
I'm very lucky because the cabin crew of some airlines barely get to step off the plane when they get to their destinations – they have to turn round and come straight back again.
The time we have between flights is getting shorter, but you still get the chance to see the world. I'm also very fortunate in that I get to take my family away with me. I get a discount and the chance to upgrade to club or first class. If we're travelling, we always pick somewhere that not many people travel to in club class.
Once, when David was only eight-years-old and travelling with me to Hong Kong, he was sitting in club class, but asked me if he was in first class. He was so excited about it I didn't have the heart to tell him anything but first class.
At the same time, the worst parts of the job are being away from home for a long time, but the kids are older these days so it's not as bad as it used to be. I find flying through the hours of darkness hard going although it's an easier flight – it's a very quiet flight, because everyone sleeps. We're so used to all the travel that we don't really get affected by jet lag.
There have been a few plane crashes recently, but it's never once put me off flying. Our pilots are trained to such a high standard so I have no fear at all.
There's high security at airports, but British Airways also has its own security team. People go and check around all of the stations that we're based out of and if an area isn't safe we're told about it – for example, people based in Cairo during the recent unrest in Egypt were told not to go out of their hotel.
If a country becomes too risky to fly from, then we don't fly there any more. We're constantly updated about what to do and what not to do – for example, we know not to get into a taxi in Bangkok on our own.
When a plane downs, like the recent Malaysia Airlines flights, you might get people coming into the galleys to ask about it. We don't know any more about these events than anyone else does from watching the news.
People are still going to fly to where they need to get to and they just have to get on with it. At the end of the day, flying is still one of the safest forms of travel.
There are always going to be nervous passengers. That won't change depending on what's on the news and we're trained to look out for people who are holding on to their seats so hard their knuckles are white. We know how to put those people at ease and are tested every year. I've been tested once a year for 31 years.
I've had a few emergencies, but I could count those on one hand and I've never had anything bad like a heart attack happen. One woman did go in to premature labour – she was flying for work and her husband told her she shouldn't go. She didn't have the baby then, but she was rushed to hospital. She sent me a bunch of flowers to say thanks for helping her.
I've carried a few celebrities. Most recently Michael Caine was on board with his gorgeous wife and the one at the top of my scale was Robert Redford. He came on board with a woolly hat and dark glassses and I didn't realise who he was until he took them off. Russell Crowe was very quiet and private, and Jay-Z was lovely and charming.
I've picked up plenty of tips for flying over the years – particularly since 9/11.
If you use mineral make-up it's not liquid so you can carry that through security easier as well as a stick deodorant instead of a roll-on or spray. I also think four-wheeled suitcases are fantastic.
Dehydration can be a big problem when you fly so I always drink a lot of water. On long-haul flights, we serve plenty of water and fruit juices, but I always advise bringing your own bottle of water on board anyway and even a facial spritz.
I'm a big fan of Elizabeth Arden's Eight Hour Cream and lip balm and Touche Eclat for dark circles under they eyes.
You can buy all of these products onboard so you can just carry them off the plane at the end of the flight. People think that we're not subject to the same security checks as everyone else, but we're searched the same as everyone else.
If you're going on a long-haul flight and checking in a suitcase, add a couple of dryer freshener sheets as it will make your suitcase and clothes smell lovely when you open it up.
Finally, when flying long-haul, bring a pashmina with you because they take up no space and really help with the chilly air conditioning."
Kara Doherty (34) is senior cabin crew for Flybe. She is married to Christopher, a Flybe pilot, and they live in Belfast. She says:
I've worked for Flybe for more than seven years. I actually did a degree in anatomy at Queen's before studying for a Master’s in Forensic Science in Bournemouth.
When I finished, I came home to Northern Ireland, applied for the job at Flybe and got it. It was something I always fancied doing and I haven't looked back since. I love seeing people every day. Every day is different, so it's not like a nine-to-five office job. I also love the shifts, because if you start early then you finish early and you have the rest of the day to yourself. We fly commuter routes, too, so you get regulars fliers who you build up a rapport with.
The roster is the luck of the draw — sometimes I just fly over to England and other times I can fly on into Europe. There are quite a few perks, too. We get discounted flights with both Flybe and other airlines. Cabin crew look after each other no matter what airline they're with, so we see other crew from long-haul airlines flying home with us and it's nice to have a chat with them.
The hardest part is getting up early in the morning — my earliest start is 5.45am.
The most famous person I've flown with is Matt Cardle, but plenty of my colleagues have had more famous passengers.
Our uniform of course has to be neat and tidy. Our nails and hair need to be immaculate and our lipstick should compliment the purple uniforms. I find it's important to have a really good skin regime and drink lots of water.
We're very well-trained for four weeks when we start and we're constantly trained throughout the year. The worst medical emergency I've had was a lady onboard who had a stroke. Because we're trained so well, we were able to deal with it quickly and the lady made a good recovery.”
Dan Davison (37), who lives in Dundonald, is a cabin crew base manager for Jet2.com. He says:
I started working as cabin crew for an airline called AirBelfast in 1994 — it went bust quite quickly, so then I joined a company called European Aviation. It was a charter company that would do private charters for organisations like orchestras, bands and football teams.
It meant I got to go to some strange places and meet some interesting people — we had The Prodigy and Skunk Anansie on board.
I was with European Aviation for eight years and then moved to Jet2.com 10 years ago. Now I'm predominantly office-based, but I have to fly at least once a month to keep my hand in and also to see how my team are performing.
I like to get out and meet passengers — working with the public means that no two days are ever the same and they make the job interesting. You meet some weird and wonderful characters.
Because of the shift roster you get quite a lot of free time around your shifts. We also have quite a lot of standby in the winter because it's quieter — you need to be ready to go to work but if you're not called in then you can stay at home which is quite nice.
We have staff travel on our own network so we get to travel at a discounted price. There are also travel agents specifically for crew so we can also get discounts through them.
The shift work can take its toll on you, so I always say sleep when you're tired and eat when you're hungry — you can find yourself eating lunch at 8.30am but it is lunchtime according to your body. Then or course you should drink lots of water — the altitude dries you out.
We have detailed uniform guidelines; short, neat hair for the men and no wild colours or styles. For the women nails must be French-polished or red, plain for the men. Men aren't allowed to wear earrings and you're allowed one ring on each hand.
There are of course downsides. Airline delays do happen and they are out of our control. It has happened that what was a six hour trip turns into a 24-hour trip. Most of my friends are crew though so they do understand.
I was cabin crew when 9/11 happened. We were grounded for a while and then all the strict security measures kicked in. People were worried about security and flying then and we were a little more wary when we were flying.
People still talk about MH370, the flight that went missing, because they still wonder what went on. The shooting down of flight MH17 was a bit more of a shock. To think that you could be shot out of the sky while you're going about your daily business was a bit strange.
We used to think that terrorists were on the ground and couldn't get anything up that high. It certainly makes you think, but I've never had nerves when I was flying. If it's going to happen it's going to happen — there's not much you can do about it.
I know passengers are talking and thinking about the recent plane crashes because they talk to me about it, but I haven't come across anyone who has become more scared of flying because of them.”
Cabin crew on screen
Such is the enduring allure of life as a flight attendant that the job has inspired numerous screen depictions:
- Airplane! — the ultimate spoof starring Leslie Nielsen (right) features the softly spoken Julie Hegarty as kooky but likeable air stewardess Elaine.
- The Terminal — Tom Hanks starred as a man stranded in a New York airport after a revolution in his country made his passport invalid. Thanks to kindly stewardess Catherine Zeta-Jones, though, his reluctant visit proved a little more bearable.
- Passenger 57 — an early role for Elizabeth Hurley as treacherous flight attendant Sabrina Richie in Wesley Snipes thriller.
- A View From The Top — in her quest to get to the top job as flight attendant for the New York to Paris first class cabin, Gwyneth Paltrow sported some truly big hair and bad outfits in this rom-com.
- Pan Am — Christina Ricci played the fiesty Maggie in the short-lived TV series Pan-Am about the airline in its 1960s heyday. Sadly, the show was cancelled after its first season, but the hairstyles and costumes were fabulous.
- Almost Famous — before becoming the ditsy Jess in TV show New Girl, Zooey Deschanel played William Millar's older sister who ran off to become a stewardess.