Flight Attendants and Vigilance

One of the guidances I offer to patients is how to board their flight. Not just what to take for entertainment, or temperature regulation, but how to prepare for the boarding process.

For many fearful flyers (and others who anxiously await confronting a fearful event), the leadup to their flight can be critical to success. For some, it’s the “day before” preparation; for others, it’s waiting at the Gate ready to board; and for others it can be the weeks before their journey, especially one with a complicated itinerary where things can often come undone.

One of the critical ways fearful flyers can increase their chances of success is knowing how to talk with airline staff, from checkin through to the Gate crew and onto the cabin crew. There are ways to handle these interactions which can go a long way to better self-management. That is, don’t make a challenging situation any more difficult by letting your anxiety spill out onto others who are in a customer service role. Sometimes, the best form of anxiety management is to not try to reduce it, but just contain it to tolerable levels and not make a difficult situation worse. This is about maintaining composure under duress, rather than eliminating all sources of duress.

One of the airline staff groups who you will see managing composure under duress is flight attendants (FA). They will be the people you will interact with most during your flight, perhaps initially greeting them at the Gate and when boarding.

I can honestly say that I have had 99% positive interactions with FAs, even those who work at some of the USA’s most maligned legacy carriers. Many of the blogs and other travel sites you’ll visit which are full of complaints will cite the airline I have in mind, and indeed some will assert that with all the changes over the last few years due to a merger with another airline, morale is poor and its service reflects a “couldn’t care less attitude” – a loss of workplace pride.

When I travel to the US on one of these carriers, I get to see their most senior FAs in action. They bid for the very long trans-Pacific flights due to the perks that come their way – long work hours, but a good amount of time off per month. Passengers on these 14 hour flights, usually seated in one of four classes (First, Business, Premium Economy and Economy), have a tough flight due to its length, change of time zones, and the challenge of getting a few hours sleep.

Because of the long flights and the possibility that some passengers will over imbibe alcohol (and perhaps mix it with prescribed medication), FAs need to be vigilant at boarding time. They are also on the look out for unwell passengers, which may cause a very expensive inflight diversion should a medical emergency be declared.

If you’ve watched some episodes of the Qantas reality TV show, Ready For TakeOff, you may have noted a few occasions when the Cabin Manager (CSM) took unwell passengers to one side, asked them some questions, then called the Airport Duty Manager to offload the passengers due to concerns about their safety.

All of this was brought to mind when I read a Q and A entry by a Cabin Manager this past week on Quora:

Screenshot from Quora
Screenshot from Quora

You can read the full original article here.

What I want to emphasise is that the article reinforces what I’ve said on this website and what I tell my patients: Cabin crew are safety officers first. They may give the impression of being composed and unflustered, but the reality is they are watching you like a hawk and their pleasant facade is a well-rehearsed professional demeanour. That doesn’t mean they are being false and artificial. But like the pilots, they have a set of safety rituals to perform for each flight. While the flight crew may be entering weights and speeds, checking loads and fuel in a methodical fashion, so too are the FAs in terms of functioning safety equipment, placement of bags safely in case of an emergency stop and rapid exit, and general passenger welfare.

Notice what the author writes about noticing passengers:

I’ve been a Flight Attendant for 25 years.  Greeting passengers at the door requires concentration on several levels.  Of course the objective is to make you feel welcome and comfortable, and I try very hard to give the impression that I’m warm, approachable and competent, that you will have a wonderful flight with nothing to worry about.

BUT, that’s only one aspect.  While I’m trying to give that impression, I’m evaluating you very closely.  It’s your impression on me that I’m paying close attention to, and I’m considering a number of possibilities.  For example, here are just a few things that I consider:

Is this person intoxicated?
What attitude do I get from this person?  Helpful? Belligerent? Withdrawn?
Is this person physically fit? Powerful?  If so, where is he/she sitting?
Any physical disabilities or hindrances such as a limp, injured hand/arm, etc.?
Traveling alone?  With one other or with a group?
Comfortable/fluent with English language?

All of these things help me to assess people who can be helpful to us on a flight or even if they might develop into a problem.  Remember that we will be hurtling through the air between six and seven miles above the earth.  If a problem develops, one cannot simply dial 911 and wait for the police.  So the whole idea is to prevent problems from getting airborne, and be prepared for them if they do develop in flight.

Further on we read:

If I see someone who is muscular, powerful, strong, physically fit, I memorize his/her face and make a mental note of where they are sitting.  I consider this person a resource for me.  In the event of an attack on the flight or on me, these are my “go-to” people.  If a situation looks like it could develop, I’ll privately and discreetly ask one of these people if they would be willing to help us if necessary.  Help might involve subduing or restraining an unruly passenger.  We hope it never happens, but we will prepare just in case it does.

I try to learn if we have any passengers who are airline employees, particularly crew members who have been trained in the in-flight procedures.  These people also are a resource for me.  They’ve been trained in what to do in an emergency, whether medical, mechanical, etc.  They know how to handle the situations as well as I, and are trained to become an instant “team member”, fitting right in immediately if needed.  They are an invaluable resource for me, and I like to know who they are and where they’re sitting.

This is why I suggest to patients if they fly soon after their sessions with me that they introduce themselves to the Cabin Manager not by name, but by seat allocation: their minds are trained to “see” the aircraft and its locations, including safety equipment carried onboard.

One more quote:

I often see passengers who are afraid of flying and need a word of comfort and encouragement.  I’ve had people try to smuggle pets in their purses or handbags, bottles of booze in their briefcases.  (Booze is allowed as long as it stays capped.  You just can’t drink your own liquor on the plane.)  So yes, I need to be vigilant and aware, all behind my “greeting face” of smile and pleasant, comforting welcome!

So, there’s that word again: vigilance. FAs are trained to know what to look for to ensure a safe flight. You, as a passenger, need to model yourself on their methods. Be prepared to be vigilant but do so in a composed manageable way, so as not to trigger your threat response unnecessarily. If you do, old routines will take over (heart pounds, hands clench, breathing stops) and you will go into panic mode.

Learning to stay composed in any given situation is a real life skill which translates across many of life’s challenges. It’s a learnable, trainable brain-based activity for which we now have modern technologies to assist. I’ll look more at these in another blog entry soon.

(There are any number of cabin crew blogging and tweeting who can give you insight into their professional and personal lives, reinforcing what I’ve written here. One to follow who has also written a book of her life in the air is Heather Poole: @heather_poole)

If this story has suggested it’s time to get some help with your fear of flying or other anxiety condition, you can get in touch with me if you’re seeking professional help: 0413 040 747 in Australia.

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