We have all seen them walking through the airport terminal as we have been departing for our own trips – a group of smartly uniformed and elegant men and women, all dragging the ubiquitous wheelie bags behind them, as they head off to check-in for their flights.
Once onboard, we take for granted the smooth and professional welcomes, and the brisk and efficient manner in which the aircraft is prepared for its trip.
The Safety demonstration is performed, choreographed beautifully to a disinterested audience, many of them studiously reading their newspapers, or playing games on their smartphones.
Once airborne, we don’t bat an eyelid as we are served drinks, meals, and hot towels, all with a smile and good grace.
We are treated to the spectacle of the swift collection of headsets, and the prompt stowage of equipment as the aircraft descends towards its destination.
Finally, we disembark, with the farewells from the cabin crew still ringing in our ears.
Leaving the airport, we will probably notice a crew outside, patiently awaiting the arrival of the crew bus to take them to their hotels.
What an easy life! Operate a thirteen-hour flight to Singapore, then enjoy three days shopping, and relaxing, and staying in a four-star hotel! And get paid for it.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Fancy it as a career?
Must be an easy job, right?
Now let’s do a quick reality check, and see what is really involved in operating as Cabin Crew.
Firstly, we have to appreciate why the cabin crew are there in the first place. Contrary to popular understanding, their primary function is not serving food and drink and making duty free sales.
Their primary function is that of safety.
Strangely enough, their principal concern isn’t bringing you some warm nuts and a gin and tonic, but ensuring that the required safety standards are being maintained, and for increasing your chances of survival in the event that something goes wrong.
All of these safety requirements are laid down by the relevant regulatory authorities; EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) in Europe, the FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) in America, and are legally binding upon airline operators.
So, your average cabin crew member is actually a highly-trained individual who is capable of many things that the travelling public are not aware of. They are certainly not stereotypical “fluffy” airheads.
In an effort to discover what it takes to become aircrew, I enrolled on a new entrant cabin crew course with a major British airline. This course would take at least four weeks, which I admit, did surprise me, as I didn’t think it could have that much content.
How wrong I was!
My course was to be conducted in West London, at the main training centre for the airline, and I arrived with plenty of time to spare. I met with my fellow students, who, it seemed, came from all walks of life, and some from other areas of the airline.
We were all still milling about when a harried-looking instructor arrived and requested that those of us on course number 041 follow him immediately to classroom 6.
We all shuffled into the classroom and a minor hubbub ensued as we found somewhere to sit and stow our bags.
Our instructor introduced himself as John, and without further fuss, he launched straight into a briefing, giving us all an overview of what was to come in the forthcoming weeks.
He concluded by telling us that punctuality was vital to an airline operation, and that should we arrive late, we would be awarded a demerit point for each minute. Collect 6 points, and be washed off the course.
I realised then that this course would be no picnic. I did feel that this draconian system was primarily aimed at the younger members of the intake, young lads and lasses fresh out of school, who may have had a much more laissez-faire attitude to time keeping.
For an experienced man, punctuality was ingrained in my soul, indelibly stamped there by my parents, both of whom passsed on their work ethics to me whilst I was still a small child.
Our course was to start with a weeks worth of medical training, known in the flying business as Avmed.
We were all herded into our classroom, which was filled with medical equipment, including portable defibrillators, oxygen cylinders and resuscitation trainers. It all looked a little intimidating.
Our instructor, Louise, was an ex-nurse, and experienced crew, so she immediately commanded the respect of the class. The first thing we had to learn was our basic responsibilities – what we could, or couldn’t legally do.
Cabin Crew are trained to be able to handle lower level medical issues, and are more than capable of dealing with cuts, sprains, burns, and the like.
But normal workplace first aid just doesn’t hack it when the workplace is a pressurised aluminium tube flying at 38,000 feet – miles from any hospitals or medical centres.
Cabin crew may be expected to identify – and treat, diabetics with uncontrolled sugar levels. They may have to adminster therapeutic oxygen to a semi conscious passenger.
Possibly deal with epilepsy, cardiac problems, panic attacks, air sickness and in extreme cases, childbirth and even death on board.
Yes folks – not so glamourous now…
In order for crew to be able to perform these functions, every aircraft is required to carry a minimum level of medical equipment.
This normally consists of a number of small first aid kits distributed around the passenger cabin and one large suitcase-sized medical kit containing a much more comprehensive array of equipment.
We had to commit to memory the contents of each type of kit, its location on the aircraft and the procedure for issuing medication and equipment.
It is important to realise that cabin crew are not trained medical practitioners, and as such are not legally entitled to prescribe medication, so a large proportion of the aircraft medical kit is prohibited for use by cabin crew.
That is why, in serious cases, cabin crew may make an announcement for any trained medical professionals to identify themselves and assist with the treatment of a sick fellow passenger.
There is also an unseen level of back-up available to help.
Many airlines subscribe to a service called MedLink, a specialist medical unit that is experienced in airline procedures and protocols, and whose staff are familiar with the type of medical intervention that maybe needed mid atlantic!
MedLink doctors and specialists may be contacted by using the aircraft’s satellite phone, the cockpit High Frequency radio patch or a specialist system called ACARS.
ACARS stands for Aircraft Communcations Addressing and Reporting System.
This system is normally used routinely for the transmission and acceptance of flight clearances from Air Traffic Control, company operational messages, such as flight plans, fuel plans, aircraft performance calculations and load and balance plans.
In our case, as cabin crew, any developing medical emergency in the cabin may be swiftly escalated via the flight deck to involve a fantastic level of support and guidance for the treatment of a sick passenger.
We were given practical instruction in how to provide therapeutic oxygen, and the use of an automatic external defibrillator. We also had to demonstrate that we could make an accurate patient assessment, deliver CPR, and place an individual into the recovery position.
This training was all delivered in a cabin simulator, with airline seats, and a standard sized aisle. We all had to show that we could get someone out of their seat, place them on the floor in the aisle, use the defibs, administer CPR and then place them into the recovery position.
I have been a qualified First Aider for years, but I still needed to make a huge amount of effort to remember the procedural and legal aspects of delivering healthcare in an aircraft cabin environment, so I was extremely pleased (and relieved) to have passed my first weeks training in Aviation Medicine.
I now had a complete weekend off in which to study that manuals related to operating the rest of the aircraft, including operating doors, firefighting, operating the emergency slides, ditching drills, and wet drills and security training.
No beers for me then!
Stay tuned for the next chapter in this thrilling account…