Sky Waitresses, The Forgotten Heroes

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Written by: Phil Derner Jr.
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Leaning over my Blackberry as it sat on my bed, as I worked my tie knot above it yesterday morning, I read more deeply into what was then the missing Sukhoi Superjet in Indonesia. In my head I already had this ignorantly chalked up as a “typical” developing-world-crash and wondered what lessons would arise as a result. The crash reports that I constantly read and study almost blend together in safety textbook lessons for the future, almost making me calloused to the horrors of the humans inside the aluminum and composite tubes that traverse the Earth.

Then I saw the photos that we published taken by a reporter who had been on the previous demo flight, the last that had sucessfully operated. I saw the faces of the young, pretty flight attendants serving drinks to passengers who were excited to be onboard. It looked like an event filled with fun and aviation joy as everyone was glowing, and excited to sample this new aircraft.

By chance, I also attended a graduation ceremony for a group of flight attendants for a major airline yesterday. Fifty men and women from all walks of life walking onto a stage, being handed their wings with giant smiles glued to their faces in their crisp new uniforms. It was a joyous event that was attended by many of their friends and family as well, including some friends of theirs from other airlines in uniform that were able to present the shiny new wings to the graduates.

Flight attendants training for a water landing in Indonesia. Image courtesy the US Department of State.

Flight attendants training for a water landing in Indonesia. Image courtesy the US Department of State.

Few of those friends and family attending knew why many of us non-flight attendants were clapping so hard and why we were smiling so big for them. It was because we saw first-hand the training and effort by these dozens of people who set out to complete a rigorous course that revolved around not serving peanuts and single-serve bottles of wine, but safety. We knew that this ceremony wasn’t to cap off a few weeks of classes and partying, but that it was a true accomplishment to go out into the world and make sure that you, the passenger, landed at your destination intact, without even knowing of the efforts and care that took place around you.

There is a blissful ignorance among the flying public about flight attendants and safety. Passengers get handed their mini-pretzels and they think all is well. And it is. Their coffee is hot and their chips arrive promptly and the world is a great place. Not only are you safe, but you feel safe. Mission accomplished.

Behind those smiles and kind greetings is someone that learned their plane inside and out, called out evacuation commands, jumped out of planes onto slides, received water recovery training and so much more. Time and time again, in those very crash reports that I constantly pore over, survivors recount how cabin crewmembers turned to their trained instincts to keep you safe. That petite gal working the forward galley with an ear-to-ear smile is actually an undercover firefighter, lifeguard, police officer and EMT all in one.

Those stereotypes about the wild, party-filled layovers…yeah, those are largely accurate. But they are well-earned. I remember standing back and watching proudly as these future flight attendants in-training skipped the bar to study for their tests on a nightly basis and huddled in groups in break rooms for memorization sessions. I smirked to myself regularly thinking “these people are holding their safety training in the highest priority,” and I felt complete comfort having them take care of myself and my family in the skies.

For all the times that crashes are unfortunately and maybe unfairly blamed on pilot error, just as often the efforts of the inflight crew are forsaken and ignored. A few years ago when my phone starting going nuts after a US Airways plane went down in the Hudson, I was sure that 150 people had just lost their lives. My heart was the only thing sinking, however. Not only was I very wrong, and not only did two pilots manage to land a plane successfully, but the efforts of the flight attendants evacuating everyone the way they did was just as vital to making sure that no one died in those freezing waters that day.

Through all of our clapping and cheering at yesterday’s graduation ceremony, every smiling flight attendant face I saw flashed back in my mind to those of the flight attendants on the Sukhoi demo flight. Any one of these people could be in a horrible life or death situation one day. But knowing what these brave people stepped up to train for, and then meeting that challenge head-on, I feel completely safe and trust my life flying among them. The more I witness the inner workings of our incredibly complex industry, the more and more I can relax every time I fly, and the more confident I feel knowing that you are safe, even when you don’t realize it. So enjoy your pretzels.

This article is dedicated to cockpit and cabin crews around the world who have given their lives in the name of aircraft safety since commercial aviation began in 1913.

About the Author

Phil Derner Jr.
Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.



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  • capnaux

    Thanks for the peek behind the galley curtains, Phil.

    As one operating from the other side of the cockpit door, I can attest to the accuracy of your words. Flight attendants are the unsung heroes and heroines of the sky. They train, train, train…and mostly get treated like “glorified waitresses” by the public. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They are trained to save our ar$es in an emergency, and as you noted, they have, time and time again. They only serve your coffee in their spare time, for something to do.

    I do want to clarify, however, that those “wild, party-filled layovers” are extremely rare (and therefore always memorable!) However, 99% of the time, after a long, exhausting day, all the crew wants to do is “slam-click!”

    Thanks again for a great piece 😉