Can our nervous flyer cut it as cabin crew?
Starting on BBC2 tonight, a new documentary looks at the training given to British Airways cabin crew. We sent Frances Burscough along to see how she would cope with an in-flight emergency. Fasten your seat belts!
So there I was, sitting on the plane which was cruising steadily after a smooth and uneventful take-off. As I waited for the breakfast trolley to appear I flicked through the in-flight magazine. Shall I buy a teddy bear dressed as a pilot? Or a coffret of assorted Dior perfume miniatures? Decisions, decisions. When suddenly without warning the seat belt signs flashed on with a nonchalant yet worrying “ding dong!”
Oh nooo! I hate it when this happens. It usually means turbulence and, as a nervous flyer I hate turbulence more than most. Not that I overreact or anything, but I cannot help but assume I'm about to die.
The ding-dong death knell went off again. I checked my seatbelt first, then checked the St Christopher medal around my neck second. If one doesn't save me, the other surely will I thought, as I awaited the first sickening jolt.
But then I became aware of something to the left of my peripheral vision.
I glanced over nervously to see thick smoke billowing out from under the seat across the aisle. Before I even had time to scream or alert the crew, a loud piercing alarm went off. Within seconds, smoke had filled the cabin sending the crew into an immediate state of calm controlled alert. Another alarm went off, even noisier and scarier than the first.
Oh my God.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
And St Christopher.
Suddenly the plane went into what felt like a nose-dive, which left my stomach churning in mid-air and my heart pounding against my ribs as we began a rapid and seemingly uncontrolled descent.
Helplessly, I looked to the cabin staff for some scant reassurance, but couldn't even see their faces through the acrid smoke.
Then I knew we were really in trouble. One dashed past me. Then another. And then a sound I will never forget:
“BRACE! BRACE!” They shouted in unison. “BRACE! BRACE!” The plane seemed to be dropping from the sky. “BRACE! BRACE!” The noise was so loud I couldn't hear myself think. “BRACE! BRACE!” I started to pray. Hail Mary full of gr ... “BRACE! BRACE!”
The deafening alarms competed with the noise of the engine as we plummeted downwards at breakneck speed.
No, I didn't die. I'm writing this aren't I? And no, it wasn't a nightmare, though God knows I've had enough of them exactly like that.
Neither was it a disaster movie, nor an episode of that train-wreck TV show Air Crash Investigation on Sky.
It really did happen. But — Hallelujah and thank you God — it all happened inside a flight simulator in the British Airways headquarters at Heathrow Airport. A flight simulator, I might add, that was exactly like an aeroplane cabin in every way, including all the sound, motion and even other passengers who were all in on the act.
My day of training with the airline had started with a bang. With this as their opening gambit, I just knew it was going to be a very long day.
So what was the purpose of this, frankly terrifying, exercise and what was I doing inside a hangar at BA HQ? And did they really imagine that this was going to make me more or less likely to get inside a plane voluntarily without strong sedatives and/or a strait jacket at anytime in the near future?
I'll start at the beginning.
British Airways has a big anniversary coming up and to mark the occasion they've just completed the filming of a three-part documentary entitled A Very British Airline which is to be shown on BBC2, starting tonight.
To promote the series they invited a small group of hand-picked journalists from UK publications to join them on a course which condensed six weeks of intensive cabin crew training into one day.
I say “hand-picked” but God-only knows why they picked me. Flying anywhere for me is an ordeal, which I will only consider if there are no other alternatives. Whether it's a short hop home to see my folks in England or a long-haul on holiday, if I've got the time and it can be reached by car, train, boat or a combination of them all, I'd rather do that than fly.
And so it automatically follows that if anyone was to ask me what is the one job I would least like to do I'd say, without hesitation, to be an air stewardess.
Yet there I was, at the very epi-centre of international aviation, Heathrow Airport, training to be that very thing. If that ain't professionalism, I don't know what is.
The day had been split into 10 different sessions and so far I'd just about survived the first one without a heart attack.
The purpose of this air crash exercise, apart from being a baptism of fire, was to show how the cabin crew have to stay focused, calm and, above all, assertive at all times and in any eventuality. Even in a life and death situation, they have a strict drill and are duty-bound to adhere to it.
It's genuinely impressive to see it in action, even if it is a hypothetical re-enactment. But now I was shaking like a leaf and wanted my mummy. And it wasn't even 9am.
Next up, the doors and exits practical. Opening doors? It's not rocket science, is it? Well, actually it is, sort of.
Interesting fact number 1: who knew that even opening the doors of a stationary plane can have life or death consequences?
That innocuous announcement "Cabin crew doors to manual" that we've all heard so many times is a vital instruction.
If the designated crew member doesn't switch the doors from automatic mode to manual mode when instructed, the escape slides will be automatically engaged as the door opens, killing all ground staff below with its weight of impact and, even if no-one is struck, costing the airline millions.
Each aircraft size and type has a different locking mechanism and BA crew have to know every detail of every one and the precise procedure in the correct order for each model.
Blimey. No wonder their training takes six weeks! Until now I'd just viewed airline staff as glorified, glamorous waitresses whose role was to demonstrate a double bow at the side and to serve chicken or beef with a smile.
I was already beginning to see how much more complex the job is and how much real genuine responsibility they actually have.
For the next part of our Safety Equipment Procedure (SEP) training we were asked to slip into a flying suit.
These are very fashionable at present so I was pleased to find one that fitted in this season's distinctive shade of red.
Then it struck me. Oh my God, are we actually going to fly? Please no. I don't mind being trained as an air hostess, but please don't make me fly anywhere!
Fortunately, the flying suits were just to protect our clothes. We weren't going up, we were going down.
This was evacuation training and the gigantic inflatable structure in front of us that looked like something from Alton Towers was actually an escape slide.
Interesting fact number 2: today's evacuation slides must deploy in six seconds in temperatures ranging from minus 65 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit and unfurl in winds up to 30mph.
They are made of urethane-coated nylon that is sprayed with grey aluminium paint, which protects the slide in case of a nearby fire, and they inflate with an initial boost from a canister of compressed carbon dioxide and nitrogen.
Once inflated the slide must flex precisely under a variety of weights to enable passengers to slide down quickly, but not so fast that they are injured when they reach the bottom.
For example, the slides from an A380 are designed and tested to transport all 800 passengers from the plane in just 90 seconds. Certain types can also be detached from the body of the plane to become a life raft for use on water.
And yet, they must be light and compact enough to fit inside that square box at the bottom of an aircraft door.
How incredible is that?
Going down it at the testing centre was actually great fun, like a water slide at an amusement park. However I'm guessing that in a real-life emergency situation it's not quite such a geg. The training manager (herself an actual BA stewardess) told me that if you hesitate for even a second, the crew will simply push you off.
From here we walked across the entire concourse, past all the various aeroplane simulation units and numerous groups of fully-uniformed crew being tested on assorted procedures.
I even saw one female crew trainee attempting to resuscitate a pilot inside a mock-up cockpit. Images of Leslie Nielsen behaving inappropriately in the comedy film Airplane! sprang to mind, but I had to stop myself from laughing out loud. This was neither the time nor the place for slapstick.
I discovered that when I recited the "Tell me Joey, have you ever seen a grown man naked?" scene and nobody laughed.
From there to the open air fire safety centre. Here we were talked through a number of hypothetical situations involving on-board fires and shown the different types of protocol for each.
We were also led through a smoke-filled cabin wearing oxygen masks and tested on our ability to put out a fire in one of the ovens in the hold.
Interesting fact number 3: in the event of an on-board fire, cabin crew avoid the use of the "f" word when communicating amongst themselves, in case it causes mass panic. Instead they are more specific, using the terms "orange flame" and "ignited".
By lunchtime we had completed our potted safety equipment procedure training and I have to say that this in itself was a great relief.
Although this condensed course was really designed to give us just a taster of all the different responsibilities of cabin crew, it made me now more aware than ever of what can go wrong on any given flight at any given time.
There was one moment of light relief, though, while we were having our lunch. The room was filled with crew who were now involved in the training of new staff, but all of whom had thousands of hours of flight experience between them. So I asked the same question to each.
"Have you ever been involved in a dangerous life-or-death situation on board a plane?" And the answer from all of them was a unanimous no. This did come as a great relief as it made me realise just how rare these situations are.
Next up, we went through the standard On Board Safety announcement from "the seat belt is opened, fastened and unfastened, like so" at the beginning to the whistle and light demonstration at the end. How many times have I seen/watched/listened to that same routine throughout my lifetime? A hundred times? Two hundred? Who knows, but you'd think after so much repetition it would be imprinted indelibly on your brain forever, wouldn't you?
As we were asked to recite it ourselves we all got it hopelessly wrong, either missing out entire pieces of equipment or doing it all in completely the wrong order.
Of course, being the Grim Reaper of air travel, the one bit I did get right, word for word, was the speech beginning "in the unlikely event of landing on water ..."
After this we spent the rest of the day learning about first class travel and all the extra training cabin crew have to go through before they can pass muster to serve the airlines' most elite passengers.
This provided some light relief from the earlier life or death scenarios and we even got to sample some of the first class gourmet food and wine, while testing out the really luxurious executive cabins. Bliss ... not that I'll ever get to try it for real in my lifetime. Well at least not before I win the lottery that is.
Finally, the moment we'd all been waiting for: to try on our uniforms and be handed our certificates.
Well, they were ours for an hour. This for me was definitely the best bit.
No sooner had I squeezed myself into the tight skirt and shapely jacket, tied my hair into a chic chignon and positioned my hat at the regulation jaunty angle, than I felt like the real thing.
Not that I ever in my wildest dreams or nightmares would want to be an airline stewardess, for the reasons I've outlined above.
But as far as make-believe goes I certainly did feel like one, for an hour. Naturally, I looked at myself in the mirror and quipped:
"I'm Frances. Fly me!"
'Not on your life', my subconscious replied.
A Very British Airline, is on BBC2, tonight at 9pm
Getting the British Airways look ...
To say that BA uniform guidelines are strict is an understatement. The booklet each trainee is given has 75 pages of style rules. Here are just a few:
British Airways hat
The British Airways hat must be placed tilted slightly forward above brow line on the right side of head. It must be worn with elastic under hair to keep the hat in place and must be hidden by hair.
Must be worn fully buttoned at all times when in public areas. May be worn unbuttoned only when seated. It must not have the collar turned up or sleeves rolled.
Must be worn from when the seat belt signs are turned off after take-off, and removed when seat belt signs are turned on in preparation for landing. Must be worn fully buttoned. Must always display relevant name badge. If wearing the cravat outside the blouse, it must be tucked inside the gilet.
The long or short-sleeved blouse may be worn with the skirt or trousers. Must be worn with the uniform tie/cravat at all times. Must be worn fully buttoned. Long sleeves must be fastened at the wrists and never rolled or pushed up. If necessary the shirt pockets must only contain a pen and business cards.
The hemline must be on the knee, i.e. not below the knee or above the knee when standing. The split must be worn to the wearers back left side. The BA label inside the skirt waistband must be worn at the centre back waist.
For females, must be plain black leather (not suede or patent) without laces, trim or pattern. No gold/silver buckles or other adornments are permitted.
When wearing the uniform skirt, shoes must be a classic court style with a slightly squared or oval toe. Loafers or flat shoes with a defined heel and sole may also be worn.
All footwear must have a slightly squared or oval toe shape. Flat shoes may have a slightly rounded toe shape.
Heel height, measured on the outside of the back heel, must not exceed 3in (75mm). Shoes must be clean, polished and maintained in a good state of repair at all times.
Female hairstyles and grooming
Hair must be clean, tidy, well groomed and styled away from the face. Strands of hair must be secured back from the face using permitted accessories and/or hair products. When worn loose, hair should be no longer than the bottom edge of the blouse collar at the back. Afro styles must not be longer than 15in/30cm. Hair longer than the bottom edge of the collar must be secured in one of the following styles:
Ponytail — worn no higher than in the centre at the back of the head and secured with a scrunchie or covered band. If longer than 8in/20cm or the bottom edge of the collar, it must be secured under using an approved accessory.
Single plait — if this is a plaited ponytail, worn no higher than in the centre at the back of the head, it may be secured with up to two scrunchies or covered bands.
French pleat — if this is a ‘Pineapple’ style the ends must not exceed 1.5in/3cm.
Braids — must be well maintained. May be secured with scrunchie or covered band.
Fringe should not conceal the eyebrows and may be rolled or plaited into one of the approved styles.
Female skincare & make-up
Good skin care is essential. Obvious blemishes should be concealed wherever possible. As a minimum you are expected to wear lipstick and blusher. Use a face powder to set your make-up for the day and apply a blusher.
When choosing eye shadow use a soft neutral shade. Complete the eyes with eye pencil and mascara to achieve a natural look. Heavy eyeliner is not permitted.
When choosing a lipstick or gloss use a shade to compliment the colours of the uniform.
Permitted colours are provided on a separate chart
Nails should be painted in one colour only and nail art is not permitted.
Again, permitted colours are provided on a separate chart.