A typical airline passenger would see a flight attendant greet them, check if seatbelts are fastened, window shades are up, tray tables are stowed, seats are in upright position, serve meals, attend to other passenger needs, make landing checks, and carry out landing safety procedures. For some people alone, seeing this scene alone makes them claim that flight attendants are "just waiters in the sky". This is 100% absolutely wrong to be straightforward about it.
Your cabin crew are very highly trained safety professionals. They did not spend 8 to 12 weeks enduring sleepless nights just to serve you chicken or beef. Most of their training is focused on safety details, secondary are passenger meal service, addressing passenger needs, and personality development. We must say, 60-70% revolves around passenger safety and security, whereas 40-30% is on comfort and flying experience.
A former Singapore Airlines named Michelle Chan once wrote this very heartfelt exit message. Usually, exit messages consistes of "thank yous", tributes to friends, and something about lessons they have learned. This exit message should definitely change the way you see flight attendants.
While most exit posts would be filled with heartfelt farewells, appreciation, and good fortune, I’ll leave that to another day and utilise this time and attention to share with you a story a colleague once told me:
A young Father boarded the plane with his two young children about the age of 5 or under. The children were restless and excitable; getting themseated for take-off took quite some effort. Despite advise and assistance from the crew to have the children contained for their own safety, the Father sat by himself, doing and saying little.
Before the meal service, my colleague (a leading / supervisory crew) decided that having the young children out of their seats with the meal carts in the cabin spelt potential danger and injury. He approached the Father firmly this time, expressing his concerns. The Father gazed at my colleague for a few good seconds and finally said “You can take them. I don’t want them.”
My colleague carried on with the meal service with instructions to the crew to be mindful of the children. He shared with me how he had felt annoyed at the inconvenience, but also anger towards father’s indifference and irresponsibility. He was a Father himself and could not imagine how someone could be so apathetic about the safety of his own children.
But the thought stayed with him as he worked, and something just didn’t sit right. In his own words, it was “a father’s instinct”, perhaps. At the end of the meal service, he approached the father again. Calmly, he asked the father if everything was alright and if there was something that he could do.
Unexpectedly, the young Father teared up. My colleague found out that the family was away on holiday, and were on their way home. The mother of the children met with a misfortune during the trip, and passed. Her body was traveling back in the cargo hold of the plane.
It was the first time he had to handle the children without his Wife; the children without their mother, and he simply didn’t know what to do. My colleague stayed with him, offering advice and words of condolences. He then assigned the crew to handle the children in shifts until the end of the flight.
This is one of many stories that I’d came across during my career as a flight attendant for the last 3 years, but stayed with me for the lessons it imparted:
1: As a crew, our primary duty is to ensure the safety of all passengers.
2: Regardless of the situation, we should never let our prejudice cloud our judgement, and a tiny step of kindness travels far beyond any destination.
3: Beneath the uniform, we are individuals coming from all walks of life, equipped with our unique set of skills. While most passengers may not require more assistance than the delivery of food or beverage and comfort during a flight, for many others we build connections, offer assistance, provide assurance, handle emotions and so much more.
We are enclosed in a pressurised cabin 39,000 feet up shuttling through the air, with you. We place our lives in the same environment as you are, to ensure that in the event of a decompression, someone is there to place an oxygen mask on you. In the event of an evacuation, someone is there to gauge if it’s safe to open the door for you to exit. In the event of a medical emergency, someone is there to administer first aid, and in the event of death, someone is there to perform resuscitation.
Perhaps I am glorifying what we do as flight attendants but no one knows about the crew who discovered a body during the flight. No one knows about the crew who had to take turns to resuscitate a dead passenger. No one knows about the crew who decided not to put the body in a bag just so their family could spend a little more time with them. But they are my colleagues, up there in the skies with you, offering you drinks and snacks and hurting their backs by putting your bags in overhead compartments and serving you food amidst turbulence while you’re seated with your seatbelt fastened.
For 3 years this uniform gets heavier with every incident and every story and encounter, good and bad. Unfortunately this is where my journey ends, but for every one of my colleagues who choose to fly with a smile, I have the utmost respect for you, and I wish you all the safest, happiest flights for until you can fly no more. I’ll see you guys on the ground.
For everyone else, no, we’re not waiters in the sky.
FSS Michelle Chan
Honestly, one of our vision here is Flyhigh Manila is to put the quick conceived notion of "flight attendants are 'just' waiters and waitresses in the sky" to a complete end. We also hope people stops using the word "just" when refering to our waiters and waitresses in restaurants serving us food and making sure our tum-tums are full.