A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Flight attendants are safety professionals in disguise, vital to airline experience

Working as a flight attendant has its perks. You get to travel the world, live where you want and set your own schedule.

To some, this appears to be glamorous and fun, a well-traveled restaurant server with a suitcase. But they are really safety professionals in disguise.

I have never worked as a flight attendant, but I have stayed in my fair share of distant Holiday Inns over the years. And as a risk management and safety professional, I have always respected their position and the duties that they have to perform or be prepared to perform on a daily basis.

The term flight attendant is a bit of a misnomer in perception, and their job title has changed over the years from stewards/stewardesses, air hosts/hostesses to cabin attendants. In my book, they should instead be called safety attendants or safety officers to receive the respect they deserve.

A misnomer is a name or term that suggests an idea that is known to be wrong. Misnomers often arise because something was named long before its correct nature was known, or because the nature of an earlier form is no longer the norm.

The role of a flight attendant derives from that of similar positions on passenger ships or passenger trains, but it has more direct involvement with passengers because of the confined quarters on the aircraft. Additionally, the job of a flight attendant revolves around safety to a much greater extent than those of similar staff on other forms of transportation.

Origins of the word “steward” in transportation are reflected in the term “chief steward” as used in maritime transport terminology.

The first female flight attendant was a 25-year-old registered nurse named Ellen Church hired by United Airlines in 1930, and she also first envisioned nurses on aircraft. Other airlines followed suit, hiring nurses to serve as flight attendants, then called “stewardesses” or “air hostesses” on most of their flights. In the United States, the job was one of only a few in the 1930s to permit women to work, which, coupled with the Great Depression, led to large numbers of applicants for the few positions available.

Today, they are part of the cabin crew for the plane, a team of personnel who operate a commercial, business, or even military aircraft while traveling domestically or internationally. Flight attendants are specially trained for the aircraft in which they work, and passenger safety is their foremost concern.

Flight attendants have to be prepared for just about anything from fires, emergency landings, hijackings, and serious medical events to unruly and violent passengers. They are the eyes and ears of the aircraft, and their primary duty is to ensure the safety and comfort of passengers during an airline flight.

Once a flight attendant is hired, airlines provide their initial training, ranging from three to six weeks, and they are then required to complete two or three days of recurrent training every year.

If you speak to any seasoned flight attendant, they will all tell you that they are also a housekeeper, anger management counselor, fear counselor, police officer, bouncer, janitor, personal assistant, child entertainer, bartender, fight-referee, EMT, boo-boo fixer, family therapist, waste manager, re-ordering specialist, and in some cases if you work for Southwest Airlines, you may also become an occasional singer or comedian. Most hold a Ph.D. in reverse psychology and/or patience, and sometimes they are also known as MacGyver.

According to a job description on www.sokanu.com, many will work 12-hour days and the law of probability suggests that they are delayed in airports more frequently than any other human alive.

Almost all of the flight attendant’s duties are safety-related, and it begins an hour before each flight when attendants are briefed by their captain. They review weather conditions, possible turbulence, flight duration, and other factors that may affect the upcoming flight. They are also briefed on safety details and emergency equipment supplies relevant to the aircraft they will be flying.

After the briefing, flight attendants inspect the aircraft, ensuring the safety equipment is in place and working properly. If a piece of equipment, such as a fire extinguisher, is found unserviceable, flight attendants must replace the item prior to takeoff. Once passengers are called to board, flight attendants assist with the boarding process.

They aid any special needs passengers, children, or VIPs to ensure they receive the proper care while boarding. Tickets and seating positions are verified, and attendants check for both accuracy and possible fraudulent or stolen tickets. Attendants also monitor passengers; they are trained to detect suspicious behavior and evidence of malicious intent, to prevent hijacking or terrorism. In addition, they help passengers load carry-on baggage, checking that each adheres to aircraft or airline size and weight restrictions.

Flight attendants are also responsible for briefing the passengers on safety standards specific to the aircraft in a safety demonstration. Passengers are made aware of how to locate their nearest emergency exit, how to properly buckle their safety belts, what to do in the event of turbulence, how to operate safety vests or flotation devices, and how to use the drop-down oxygen masks.

After the safety demonstration, attendants secure the cabin, making sure electronic devices and cell phones are turned off, carry-ons are stowed correctly, seats are in an upright position, and tray tables are stowed. The entire procedure, from boarding to takeoff, is the airline’s pre-flight service.

After the plane is safely in the air, flight attendants will then check for passenger comfort. In addition to serving the customers, flight attendants must conduct regular safety checks and listen for unusual noises. Once the plane begins its descent, attendants must ensure all trash has been removed from the cabin and seats are in their correct positions before performing a final safety check. After landing, attendants assist passengers in safely deplaning.

Flight attendants will all tell you that most flights are uneventful and pleasant. But every flight attendant can list multiple horror stories if they have any seniority whatsoever.

Those stories include passengers with severe body odor, medical emergencies, allergic reactions, heart attacks, mid-air fistfights, and passengers urinating on the floor. They will also list horror stories including sexual groping, Ambien-induced sleepwalking, and that passenger who couldn’t stop the bleeding after clipping a toenail too close.

They put up with just about every situation you can imagine, while trying to keep a smile on their faces. But they also are empowered to enforce safety on the plane, and flight attendants have the power to kick anybody off the plane — for any reason they see fit as it relates to the safety of the airplane.

Yes, some flight attendants can become a bit irritated from time to time, just like any other customer service or public safety job. But always remember they are your go-to superhero at 30,000 feet if anything goes wrong. They are always going to be the last ones off a burning plane in order to get you home safely.

So be kind and polite to them the next time you have the pleasure of riding on their airplane.

Be Safe, My Friends

Keven Moore works in risk management services and is an expert witness. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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