Image: Carolina Angulo

APEX Insight: Passengers usually see flight attendants checking seat belts and serving food and beverages, but when called on, they are equipped to do much more.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that a flight attendant’s tool kit might resemble Mary Poppins’ bottomless carpetbag, containing everything from a measuring tape to potted plants and hatstands. On an airplane, anything from safety cards, coffee cups and extra pillows materialize out of thin air at a flight attendant’s command. And much like Poppins, flight attendants bring a trove of unique qualifications to the job, along with the uncanny ability to perform their tasks as if practically perfect in every way.

Indeed, a cheery disposition may be the most important tool. “High energy, an outgoing personality and a willingness to get involved will always be a flight attendant’s most important tools,” says Mateusz Maszczynski, a flight attendant for a major European airline and founder of Paddle Your Own Kanoo, a website about the vocation. “Remove all the other tools available to a flight attendant and their personality and people skills are what passengers will remember.”

Attendant in Training

Before flight attendants can get their wings, they must prove their aptitude for altitude with a host of personality quiz-like questions, such as, “What’s your favorite animal?” and “What’s your favorite food?” Oh, and they must also be able to swim anywhere from roughly 85 to 165 feet (25 to 50 meters), speak at least two languages fluently, hoist 35-pound (16-kilogram) bags around an airplane cabin and remain calm in the event of an emergency, all with a smile on their face and not a hair out of place.

“It is challenging to shape a service strategy into a products catalog.” – Julia Debacker, Zodiac Aerospace

To help a flight attendant master the skills of safety ambassador, wine connoisseur, travel expert and AvGeek extraordinaire, an airline’s ability to provide training, aids and educational opportunities is indispensable. In addition to safety and compliance training workshops and resources, Etihad Airways’ flight attendants can choose to add more tools to their toolbox with performance coaching sessions and preparation for promotion workshops offered throughout the year.

“We also partner with renowned brands for training and upskilling our team members,” Linda Celestino, Etihad’s vice-president of Guest Services, says. “This includes Butler training from the Savoy and Flying Nanny training approved by Norland College,” she adds. “When the new Butlers and Flying Nannies graduate, they receive iPads and onboard Flying Nanny kits to assist in carrying out their bespoke roles on board.“ In addition to the childcare skills Flying Nannies acquire, they also learn how to perform magic tricks and apply face paint. As Poppins says, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.”

For training of a less hands-on nature, Etihad and other airlines take advantage of mobile devices to make information more accessible on the go. “A lot of training is now delivered via e-learning modules, and heavy, cumbersome manuals have been replaced with online versions that you can access via your smartphone,” Maszczynski says.   

On the Button

Smart devices have also proven a useful tool for customer interaction. Old-fashioned Passenger Information Lists that have been digitized can now be updated with live information (when a device is connected) and more details, such as transfer or delay updates. More future-forward gadgets like Microsoft HoloLens goggles – now being tested by Air New Zealand and considered by Emirates – could augment service with a break in eye contact. The ongoing beta program, developed with service provider Dimension Data, provides crew with holographic passenger details, including meal preferences, flight info and even emotion readings. And passengers with mobile devices can skip the call button and save attendants the trip up the aisle by using their phone or the in-flight entertainment system to place requests.

But those in the business caution not to put the cart before the horse, or the tool before the technician. “It is important to remember that offering more services does not equate to better services,” says Julia Debacker, innovation and design strategist at Zodiac Aerospace and a former flight attendant. “If the front end is promising more, then the back end has to equally back up crew operations.” By allowing passengers to order drinks through a device, for example, airlines are setting up expectations that the service will be quicker, she explains. However, if flight attendants are given no additional assistance in preparing the drinks, this will not be the case.

Crew-facing applications, such as Lufthansa Systems’ mCabin and SITAONAIR’s CrewTab, are an important step in that direction, enabling crewmembers to coordinate operations, communicate and even file reports. Cabin crew modules offer flight attendants full overviews of their flight team, letting them know who’s checked in, where they’re positioned on board and even which languages they’re proficient in.

Emirates has rolled out a customized meal ordering app that connects to an onboard Wi-Fi router and enables flight attendants in business class to instantly transmit orders to the galley, cutting down on errors. Alaska Airlines flight attendants have access to two apps: Block 2 Block, which provides customer info, and another that is used for completing sales and transactions with the assistance of a credit card reading accessory. Japan Airlines even offers crew a smile improvement app.

Off the Runway

Maintaining a comely appearance is part of the job, too, and while airlines have courted controversy over sexist and discriminatory requirements, many have shifted from a “form over function” approach to uniforms in favor of more wearable and durable outfits. Delta Air Lines’ Zac Posen-led redesign of crew uniforms involved more than 160 tweaks and alterations along the way, with more than 1,000 wear testers and a committee of 24 staff members providing feedback on the stretchiness, comfort, and stain and wrinkle resistance of the fabrics.

“We would not be at our best possible level if we did not ask crew for input.” – Linda Celestino, Etihad Airways

Twenty thousand employees participated by sharing their uniform wish list requests on swaths of cloth, with comments ranging from “hats darling hats” to, mysteriously, “steady rain.” The feedback has led to the inclusion of several utilitarian details like a rubber grip to help keep the shirt tucked in and antimicrobial lining to prevent body odor.

“Airlines have definitely improved when it comes to incorporating crew feedback,” Celestino says. In addition to regularly conducting surveys, holding forums, monitoring reports and maintaining a suggestion inbox, Etihad has a dedicated cabin crew working group, and service and aircraft standards team (which consists mostly of core staff with experience as flight attendants).

Debacker brings her experience as a flight attendant to the research and development she conducts with Zodiac Aerospace and TU Delft. “It is very challenging to shape a service strategy into a products catalog,” she says, highlighting the heightened difficulty involved in incorporating perspectives in the highly regulated aerospace manufacturing environment. As a result, she sees product development slowly shifting to a “continuous innovation effort,” one that is no doubt more costly up front, but stands to benefit in the long run. “We have to collaborate more in our value chain to achieve the results airlines have been longing for,” she adds.   

Celestino agrees. “We simply would not be at our best possible level if we did not listen to or ask crew for input when developing our equipment, galley layouts, product and service designs or standards,” she says. “The crew have to deliver the product, so it has to work for them.”


Kits and Caboodles

Service Recovery Kits

Empowering flight attendants with the ability to turn bad situations around, service recovery kits may include dry-cleaning reimbursement vouchers, lounge passes, free upgrade coupons and pre-loaded backup IFE tablets.

Passenger Safety Briefing Kits

A life vest, mock seat belt, safety card and passenger oxygen mask save flight attendants from having to pantomime emergency procedures and help communicate lifesaving information to passengers.

Emergency Medical Kits

Usually prepared and packaged by a medical company, a
typical airline emergency kit contains everything from antiseptic wipes, tourniquets and nitrile gloves to syringes, blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes. Pharmaceuticals include epinephrine, diphenhydramine, dextrose
and nitroglycerin tablets.

Plonkey Kits

An old-fashioned term for a small bag of essentials, either provided by the airline or carried on board by a flight attendant, a plonkey kit usually contains ice tongs, oven mitts, a clothing brush and miniature sewing kit. Flight attendant Mateusz Maszczynski says no flight attendant will ever leave home without “enough medication to open a small pharmacy,” hand sanitizer, plug adaptors, a wristwatch and more.


“What’s in a Flight Attendant’s Tool Kit,”was originally published in the 7.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.