A Salute To Busy Bees In Uniform. “.Good afternoon Mr. Philip, how are you today, turn right and your seat is right there” – Christina with a beaming smile that beats the radiance of the warm November sunshine at Dubai’s T3 welcomes me into yet another trip on an Airbus Three-Eighty.
The A380 – is incredibly large, massively spacious, yet surprisingly quiet. The wings almost never ever end, and the tail keeps going towards the skies, yet not a fuel guzzler. A head turner on the tarmac, a special-attention seeker at the gate, yet a toy in the hands of well-trained Pilots. It’s thrilling to be up in the air in the company of clouds, in a plane that carries the weight of around 500 people, their thousands of pieces of bags, vaccines/medicines, fruits, vegetables, meat products, electronic goods, special cargo (anything from an expensive Lamborghini to a prized animal), even newspapers! And still climbs effortlessly into the atmosphere, stays afloat, and zooms at >1000km/h.
Reaching the ‘upper deck’ requires almost the same number of steps to reach an A320 aircraft from the ground. Slick fittings, an experiential lighting system, spacious walkways that allow for more than a stretch of legs, round edges gentle in their bent, plush settings… any which way you look at it, there’s a sense of wonderful wonder as you step inside this silent giant. (the Queen of the Skies is still my favorite!).
The most intriguing element here is a small cubicle right under the stairway from ‘Economy’ to the upper deck. The only indication that allows you to imagine what this space could be is tiny signage that reads ‘Crew Only’
When you have to manage 500 passengers and up to 24 members of the Crew and ensure size does not eat its way into the quality of service or safety of passengers, monitoring each item on the service chart is necessary. An on-the-lap office will not suffice. Boarding
At the first entry into the aircraft, Christina the leader of the Economy team continues to put up a lavish smile through her aging visage and greets everyone stepping onto this aircraft. In between many phone calls on the intercom invite her attention to the door, and boarding gets interrupted repeatedly. The door is wide, tempting the adventurous to try and make their way in, escaping her notice. But they fail. When boarding gets interrupted yet again, Tanya is roped in, and she takes over.
Remember, these ‘Cabin Attendants’ repeat the same monotonous greeting to hundreds of people, for about 20-odd minutes little ‘office’ space has already gone through some amount of paperwork. Sheets of paper are haphazardly strewn around some ‘Emirates Cabin Crew Docket’ folders on the pulled-out, make-shift table all of about 5 inches in depth and 2 feet in length. The door is half open, and my seat adjacent, secrets of how a ‘cabin manager’ works through the flight, are out in the open, almost. Michael, tall, active and pleasant, is slicing his towering figure through passengers who board the flight. As the Cockpit Crew is busy getting their share of paperwork done with the ground, technical, and airport staff, an engineer enters the ‘office’.
Now to fit a 6’+ figure in that ‘office’ is quite difficult indeed. He has to first bend, and while at that, ensure he does not even unintentionally hit a passenger walking by, with any part of his body. He then nearly crawls almost on his knees and gets seated. There’s hardly any space to move or manoeuvre to retrieve a sheet of paper that falls down.
Michael, already signing a few sheets and tapping some keys on the computer, has an urgent sheet to take to the cockpit, but only after the engineer is able to leave the ‘office’. Doors are waiting to be closed, the Captain impatiently looks behind for Michael.As the engineer looks on, a family of 5 (the last to board) is struggling to move on ahead and get to their seats; once they get past, he can exit the ‘office’ and make way for Michael so he can head to the ‘flight deck’.
Captain James looks back time and again through the half-open cockpit door and urges for the document. Every second is precious because delays can put EK005 in a queue pile up at the end of the runway. This is an already delayed flight of 18 minutes; cost is another matter.
Shaking his head fully knowing that Michael and the engineer are stuck inside the ‘office’, Captain James uses the time to make a fast-paced and hurried greeting to all passengers – he explains the route, warns of ‘bumps’, and informs us about the weather at London. Soon after, he heads to the lavatory!
Documents signed, Michael runs down from the cockpit, gently pushes Christina away from the door, pushes a button and the huge door starts to roll in for closure. While at it, he reaches the public announcement system urging “all ground personnel to leave the aircraft”, and waves at the ground personnel.
Doors are closed. An urgent barrage of calls from David the manager of the upper deck arrives one after the other in search of Michael. Michael then makes a quick announcement instructing all cabin attendants to “arm all doors and cross-check” – his restless fingers searching for the buttons frantically. Christina does her door. In the midst of another intercom call, he signals her to do his door too, since he’s sorting out a ‘business class issue’. At the same time, he keeps a keen eye on Christina arming the door.
Banging the phone on the rest, he swiftly flies up the upper deck where First and Business Class seats are located. In a few seconds, he almost slides down. Hurriedly swirls into the ‘office’, grabs a paper, signs it in his ‘office’, and then it is faxed.
Meanwhile, his ID card is swiped beside the in-built computer monitor, opening to an admin page on the inflight operations software resembling the ‘Emirates Airline’ website. A few buttons are touched, a few cabin lights come on, and the customary Arabic welcome address follows.
“Short Taxi”, he silently screams at his colleagues on the intercom, indicating that there’s very little time to finish “before takeoff” duties, on this flight that is now almost 40 minutes late.
Christina and another colleague cannot manage a stuck baggage compartment door and Michael’s help is requested. In a minute it is sorted out by changing positions of a few bags after identifying them with corresponding passengers. He’s back at the ‘office’ by which time captain James and his Sr First Officer roles on the Rolls Royce Trent 900-powered aircraft towards the top of the taxiway.
‘Safety’ and ‘ICE’ movies are turned on. Almost all members of the crew, though smiling and seemingly enjoying the briskness of work, are heaving a sigh of relief as they sit down at designated seats.
A mother and two girls seated in front are almost wide-eyed seeing a terrifyingly busy crew. One of the girls is putting finishing touches to a school project that’s to be submitted on Monday at a London school perhaps, and Michael spotting that stops and chats up with them; also using the opportunity to tell them to fold the tray table for taking off. At the end of it, he leaves a message with the girls: “study well and don’t end up with a job like mine”! What did he mean?
On the taxiway, the monstrous aircraft continues to roll on effortlessly. The brakes are slammed briefly and the most pleasant faces of the cabin crew (moving towards the right side crew seats) are taken aback, but quickly regroup.
A middle-aged man on the front row asks Michael who is now seated: “busy day” (he’s been running non-stop)? “Well we have not started yet” comes the quick response, as his fingers roll across his face in true British style.
Quickly thereafter, we are air-borne. Members of the Cabin Crew seated in front and facing the first few rows of ‘Economy’, display highly relieved faces for managing to keep things under control just before the huge plane begins to sprint on the runway.
As the blue waters of the sea below us emerge, the soft ‘ding’ followed by the intercom ringing for Michael signals the next phase of service on the flight. A string of services is quickly rolled out by the crew. Hot towels, menu cards, fixing faulty tv screens, serving welcome drinks and savories, lunch, and tea.
As the ‘crew’ pick up their sprint from where they left, those urgently wanting to use the lavatories form a line in front of the stairs. While some doze off, others are busy surfing through thousands of channels on the ICE system, and the odd traveller is either reading a book or going through some official papers. The odd toddler screams too! It’s all happening.
It’s now nearly two hours since take off.Food carts are being cleared, stowed, and kept ready for the ‘empty cart collection’ in London. The crew is yet to eat. As one bunch does the clearing, the other is keeping ready ‘open galley’ drinks, snacks, and chocolates. Michael and Christina meanwhile, are planning pre-landing snacks, it seems!
Soon, the busy ‘office on the whale’ is quiet, and its ‘doors are closed.
An hour or so later, the doors are open again. Michael goes in and comes out a few times, each time picking up a paper, jotting something, and passing it on to other members of the Crew.
Christina meanwhile runs to the ‘office’ – one of just three who has access here. The built-in computer system in the ‘office’ from where all in-flight cabin crew controls are situated has just been swiped with her ID card (I suppose). It refuses to respond. Christina is frustrated and calls for someone to rectify the ‘hung’ system. A colleague arrives, fixes the ‘bug’, and leaves muttering something to himself. Christina does not forget to thank him. But there’s no response.
Genelle comes to do her reporting of the Business Class ‘performance’ and eggs the current occupant to hurry up. David pops in to clarify something. The three have a brief exchange of opinions.’ The office’ is shut again for a few minutes before Michael comes back, swirls in, takes another bunch of papers, connects his iPad, swipes the computer, and starts to work. Four people are frantically called from here, most of them not available. The phone is gently banged. But return calls come in one after the other, and Michael briskly answers them with a series of queries/instructions.
A pile of paper is then filled and signed (I think). Corresponding entries are made on the iPad. More calls are made, he’s made to wait impatiently, fingers are at work – the black pen revolves at the speed of a fan. Doubts are clarified and those papers are stacked and filed. A big box file is taken out of the cupboard and a few more sheets are checked.
The ‘comments and incidents’ page on the iPad opens up. A flurry of quick touches on the iPad, then on the computer. A fresh pack of UK Landing Cards are taken out, and allocated to several members of the smiling crew for distribution.
Less than 1.5 hours to land and the snack service – cold sandwiches with tea and muffins – is being carried out. Lunch was heavy with turkey salad, sauced rice and chicken, toasted buns, coconut-sprinkled chocolate cake with mango jelly, tea, and chocolates! Water, of course.
50 minutes to landing and the pace of activity in the cabin has now once again picked up. Crew members are moving around trying to finish up most of the things before the cockpit crew announces descent into London.
And then Captain James announces descent into a cold London. That’s the hint Michael needed to get into a set of landing announcements with a wide open, warm, and expressive smile, but obviously hurried and quick. As I peep into his ‘office’, he responds with a wink. No papers to refer. He’s reciting the announcements as if it’s a poem.
In child-like exuberance, Michael continues to run up and down with many things, including the donations bag. The rest of the crew is now on a blanket and headphone collection spree at breakneck speed. The aircraft has now descended to 12,000 ft from 38,000 ft. in about 8-10 minutes. Glorious London under lights is clearly visible.
The descent is a bit bumpy as it usually is on the London route, enveloped in thick cloud cover, but the size of the aircraft makes it all so easy on the passengers. Michael wraps up his never-ending set of papers, files, and iPad. Now just the computer screen is open.
Just as we hope for a smooth landing, the cockpit crew announces ‘holding’ in the air by the ATC LHR … “that’s another 15 minutes” – mutters Michael, and runs to the lavatory.
Christina makes a quick visit to the ‘office’ and waits impatiently for Michael. She’s pensive. On spotting his shoes appear out of the lav, she politely asks “do we have time?” “For what,” he asks back. “To close the bar”, to which he screeches in controlled anger.
On giving her a greatly relieving 5 additional minutes to close the bar, Christina, in excitement and relief and runs up. Unknown to me until then, the rest of the team had their heads pop out from behind the galley curtains to see Michael’s response. Jubilantly pumping their fists, they are happy and thankful. With a resurgent sense of renewed urgency, they go about closing up.
The last instruction, three ‘holding patterns’ later: “don’t forget to get everyone to sign their log time sheets (if I got that right) before they leave, yea”: At that, the aircraft dives a further 2,000 ft and the London Docklands with its iconic O2 Arena are now naked to the eye. Yes! It’s London one more time. For the first time in about 8 hours, Michael and his team are now ‘seated’ ‘peacefully’ and quite jobless too!
Once the wheels touched the runway, welcome announcements in Arabic and English are made. A few members of the crew started another brief round of to-ing and fro-ing – handing back jackets that were stored, or just the parting goodbyes to some passengers.
After yet another successfully completed flight, they are laughing, smiling, patting each other’s back,s and waiting at the exit doors ready to ‘disarm and cross check’.
With warm smiles Michael and Christina bid us goodbye. Michael engaged in few seconds of chat, commenting on my black trolley bag. “Wow” he exclaimed when he heard it was from Hangzhou. There were a couple more sentences exchanged about the nature of his work that he loves to do every day, but now was looking forward to a break of two weeks before his next flight back to Dubai.
The question really is, which part of the job of the cabin crew is glamorised? Just the travel in terms of the opportunity to be in different parts of the world, I think. Whether on the ground, up in the air, or back on earth, there’s so much of responsibility and time-critical things to do… not even one can be delayed, or missed.
On a British Airways 777 from LHR to Bangalore, there was a similarly tall, friendly, and forever buzzing Economy cabin manager. Whenever I lifted my head he was either hurrying to the front or carrying something to the galley behind! I doubt if he ever sat down on that 9+ hour flight. An hour before landing I asked him, “you must be tired”. On the go he replied, “yes, but 230 of you were comfortable, isn’t it, that’s my joy”?
Despite everything, airline cabin crew manage to put up welcoming smiles, assuredly and patiently answer questions, or hold their composure even if air turbulence is moderate, or even when a passenger finds it difficult to breathe!
They are the busy bees in uniform. Salute!
By Binu Philip
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