July 15, 2013


When I was a flight attendant (FA) we were trained and constantly tested on what we would do in case of an emergency like the July 6th Asiana crash landing in San Francisco.  One of the things we learned in training is that majority of accidents happen during take-off (20%) and landing (36%).  The drop in the sky phenomena is statistically 8% a rarity although the thought of it is horrifying. (Data source: www.planecrashinfo.com)
The cause of the Asiana crash landing is still being investigated: is it pilot error or engine malfunction?  Did the Korean culture of not questioning senior officers play a part?  One thing is clear, those flight attendants at Asiana properly secured the plane’s doors while preparing for landing.  In some plane models, a “secured” door is critical for the emergency slides to unfurl itself.  The Associated Press reported the FAs “using knives to slash seatbelts, slinging axes to free two colleagues trapped by malfunctioning slides, fighting flames and bringing out frightened children.”  Those FAs must be commended for their valor.
But there have been disturbing reports that when the plane finally stopped, there was silence on instructions from the crew.  It was also reported that it was an FA who was the last person to leave the plane.  It should be the most senior pilot.  News photos showed passengers running away from the burning aircraft with their bulging backpacks.  One even had a luggage too big to be allowed as a hand carry.  In evacuations, the crew should command everyone not to carry anything out except a child.
On October 2000, Singapore Airlines Flight 006 mistakenly used the wrong runway for take-off in Taipei during a storm. The aircraft crashed into construction equipment on the runway, killing 83 of the 179 passengers.   Some survivors of the crash said that the airline staff was “frozen with fear” from helping them escape.   
One thing is clear, it takes a certain character to manage emergency situations with a decisive, firm, and strategic calmness.  And you cannot acquire this quality within a six weeks training program.  For the public curious to know what involves FA training, a good movie, about  80 per accurate, is View From The Top starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Cristina Applegate.  This film captures the FA lifestyle including the backbiting. 

The film also confirms the unspoken recruitment policy of most airlines.  You have to be above average in looks (not that I am claiming I am), trim and fit (yes), young (or youthful-looking – I can get away with that), and of course sound intelligent (need I say more?).
Unfortunately beauty, brawn and imperturbation do not necessarily come in one package every time.  And these days, being a FA is a serious matter.  It doesn’t mean just smiles, hospitality and charm, great uniform, glamour of flying everywhere, and hobnobbing with babes (code name for good-lookers).  It also can also entail the possibility of shouting at the top of your lungs to control a melee.  That’s why airlines need to review their recruitment policies.  A lot of passengers would not be bothered with a confident friendly 50 plus year old  who in times of distress can communicate and do the right calls.  Which leads us to another matter: like it or not, a FA must practice having an emphatic voice articulate enough in English and their national language to holler and motion an organized exodus. 
Outside the USA, hiring a FA skews towards women, the twenty something and beautiful.  However no one would admit or confirm.  And in some countries, it helps to know someone influential.   A Flight Attendant position is highly coveted.  Just show up on an open call for FAs and there will be hundreds in the lobby dressed to the hilt, manicured nails, and nose-tingling whiff.
In life or death situation in a plane accident, you need a commander not a head turner.  Not to say the two can’t go together, but what are the chances?  20 percent? 36 percent? 8 percent?

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