Flight Attendant Training: It’s More than the Seat Belt Demo
If the public had a clue as to how necessary flight attendants are and how rigorous the airline flight attendant training programs are, they’d can their stupid comments.
They are there neither to serve you a beverage nor bring you a pillow. That’s what the airline’s marketing departments tell them they should do but it’s not their function. They are flight attendants … air host and hostesses … stewards and stewardesses and they are there for only one reason: to save your life if something goes horribly wrong. It’s a proud profession and tough to enter and equally tough to do.
Flying as a captain for one airline, I was inbound one night to New York’s LaGuardia airport. With 106 people on board, it was the last leg of a long day that started out in Tampa. Due to a hurricane nudging its way up the East coast all occupants in our plane had enjoyed our flight as much as anyone might being dragged on a pothole-filled street in a bathtub. Passengers were crabby and had been taking it out on the exhausted flight attendants all day. As usual in lousy weather, LaGuardia was stacked up and New York Center moved us from one holding fix to another, ostensibly inching us closer to the airport. Although the flight ordinarily took one hour we had been in the air 2-1/2 hours.
As the air traffic controller issued yet another holding clearance, hail began to pound our fuselage. The flight interphone chimed and I answered. The “B” flight attendant said the gentleman in seat 23-C was having chest pains. As is procedure, she made a PA announcement asking if any medical professionals were on board. No. Meanwhile, the first officer was busy convincing Approach Control to give us priority handling into LaGuardia. The airspace was thick with airplanes, every one of them filled with passengers similarly without cheer. Aircraft in a sorry state like ours get priority so we were cleared to leave the holding pattern for immediate radar vector headings to a “conga line” to join the airplanes on the approach. This would still take us north of New York City but then we’d double back and land to the south.
Another call to the cabin and I could hear babies crying behind the flight attendant’s taught voice and what sounded like a guy angrily yelling. She’s doing all she could but 23-C is now sweating profusely and his color is changing. To my right, the first officer is arranging for an ambulance to meet us on the ground. A lady in 5-B then pushes the flight attendant’s call button. The “A” attendant breaks off the commotion around seat 23-C to check on what 5-B needs. 5-B thinks she’s having a baby. “…make that TWO ambulances.”
We are cleared for the approach…I call for flaps. Behind me, the flight attendants are doing cabin checks in the midst of telling 5-B to breathe while watching 23-C for signs to start CPR. They’re running through the before-landing PA announcement like an auctioneer. “Breathe ma’am!” “Hang on, sir!” Glide slope intercept. “Landing gear down”. Flight attendants rushing around to configure the cabin for landing. “Full flaps.” One last plea to 5-C to “BREATHE!” then the “A” attendant hustles to strap in her seat. Passengers see the parking lot lights at window level. Meanwhile, the “B” attendant loosens 23-C’s shirt collar, adjusts the fresh air directed to his face, scurries to her fold-down seat and straps in. Ten seconds later our main landing gear touches down on runway 22.
For flight attendants, it’s all in a day’s work. And very likely on that flight, there were passengers who went home grousing that the flight attendants didn’t offer drink refills.
So, What Does a Flight Attendant Do?
Let’s cut through it all and talk about why a flight attendant is there in the first place. He or she exists to evacuate the aircraft if something bad happens. When an airplane crashes, ditches, skids off a runway or its cabin fills with smoke, the flight attendants are responsible for getting the passengers out. Don’t rely too much on that doofus occupying the seat next to the emergency exit. Like most passengers he was ignoring the flight attendant’s safety announcement and will probably not be able to figure out how to operate the mechanism anyway. In addition, he’ll be crushed and immobilized by people crowding him against the exit. Add to the mix a fuselage that’s upside-down, in water or filled with smoke or fire and it’s no scenario for an amateur. It is the flight attendants who will get the exits open, escape slides activated and people moved out without life-threatening gridlock in the cabin.
The FAA manual titled Flight Standards Information System (FSIMS) is a repository containing documentation, interpretation, and guidance for FAA inspectors. It’s used for certification and operations of commercial operators. Although regulations specify the criteria1 and duty/rest periods for flight attendants2 it was not until 1985 that the FAA made a legal interpretation to define the flight attendant’s job.3 And here it is: “Safety briefings, Compliance checks of seat belt fastening, Conducting passenger briefings, Ensuring passenger compliance with stowage of the food and beverage tray, Ensuring passenger compliance with the seatbelt and no smoking placards/lights, Checking for the proper stowage of carry-on baggage, Attending distressed passengers, or Responding to emergency situations.” As you see there’s no mention of providing beverage service or pillows. (Those come from the company’s marketing department.)
Flight attendants (or “FAs”) working for FAA Part 121, 125 or 135 operators fall under strict regulations. This is not the case for a flight attendant working for a Part 91 corporate aviation department. Corporate Part 91 flight attendants very often exist primarily for passenger comfort whereas the air carrier flight attendant is a safety role.
FAs belong to a branch of the Flight Operations department called “inflight.” The phrase “inflight” is used casually to describe those holding the position of a flight attendant (as in saying “Who’s working inflight?” instead of “Who are the flight attendants?”).
Until 2003, FAs were not required to be certificated in the US. The certification process is simple. An air carrier’s Director of Operations confirms that a flight attendant has completed its airline flight attendant training course and submits an application for a Flight Attendant Certificate of Demonstrated Proficiency. The certificate need not be carried by the flight attendant but must be produced within 15 days if requested by the FAA or National Transportation Safety Board.4
All About the Airline Flight Attendant Training Programs
So what does the airline flight attendant training program involve? Commercial operators requiring compulsory FAs produce a manual approved word-for-word by the FAA. This “bible” is called the company’s Operations Manual and in it is specified what the company agrees to do to train their inflight personnel. More likely than not, the airline flight attendant training programs greatly exceed the spartan requirements found in the regulations. The Sunday newspapers are full of advertisements from schools offering to train you as a flight attendant. This may make training easier but you will still have to pass the airline flight attendant training program of the specified air carrier for which you are hired.
The training is pretty standard between all airlines with variations necessitated by different aircraft configurations. Some airlines use flight attendants on every type of aircraft they fly while others don’t. Aircraft complexity limits the number that one should fly, but it was more ironed-out in negotiations between the airline and its flight attendants’ union.
Initial airline flight attendant training typically runs run no less than 3 weeks and no more than 8 weeks. The Operations Manual specifies what you will spend in classroom lectures. 95% of your flight attendant training program will be safety-related. You will practice evacuation drills, CPR, and first aid, operation of emergency equipment, safety demonstrations, fire fighting and learn about aviation security. Given the unmindful obsession many passengers have with it, you may be surprised to learn that very little of training is devoted to customer service! It’s very expensive to train flight attendants so the airline wants you producing as soon as possible. So most of what you will learn about passenger amenities comes after you are actually on the job.
Airlines either own their own simulators (or lease them from other companies), and this is where the bulk of your training will occur. You will memorize, practice and be graded on all the announcements but that’s not the “fun stuff.” Your simulator is a mock-up of an actual fuselage. In it, you will experience all sorts of adverse conditions like smoke in the cockpit, severe turbulence, and even ditching. Yep. Be sure to bring a swimsuit because you will evacuate your classmates in a swimming pool built just for this training purpose.
In the last phase of your training, you will be paired with an experienced flight attendant who will fly with you on live, passenger-carrying trips. This final portion of your preparation is called “I.O.E” (Initial Operating Experience). You will work the flight as if you are already qualified but the IOE instructor will be making a final check of your abilities. This ordinarily amounts to a 2 to 4 day trip but can be extended if you need a little more time.
Although fading into obscurity, many airlines still have height and weight requirements. These are not meant to discriminate against anyone. They exist because height and weight may preclude some from being capable of performing the physical demands of their duties. Age requirements are essentially non-existent. In fact, I know a man in his sixties who retired from a career as a bank president! I asked him why he wanted the job of a flight attendant and he said he loved travel, talking to people and hated the rocking chair.
Next time you watch a flight attendant go through their demo with the seat belt and oxygen mask remember that they are even more bored with it than you are, BUT they HAVE to do it. If they don’t, an incognito inspector can bring a violation against them, their airline or even shut down the company. More importantly, someone who IS paying attention may get some vital information that could save their life. Now doesn’t that make drink refills and pillows seem awfully silly?
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1 – Federal Aviation Regulations 14 CFR Part 121 Section 381 Flight Attendants
2 – 14 CFR 121.467 – Flight attendant duty period limitations and rest requirements: Domestic, flag, and supplemental operations
3 – Flight Standards Information System 8900.1 Vol III Chapter 33 Sec. 4 (Para. 3-3513)
4 – http://www.faa.gov/other_visit/aviation_industry/airline_operators/airline_safety/info/all_infos/media/2008/info08016.pdf