The Flight Attendant I: Job Responsibilities - Safety
The raison d'jtre of the flight attendant - and perhaps most difficult part of the job - is safety. Even after a six- to eight-week initial training program, flight attendants are required to go through several hours of annual recurrent training to review procedures related to safety and security.
Safety for a flight attendant has two main components: medical and mechanical. Medical incidents can range from someone feeling queasy to a full-blown heart attack at 37,000 feet. More common situations include passengers vomiting, fainting from lack of oxygen, or needing a bandage for a small cut, to more serious conditions like administering to diabetic shock and epileptic seizures. Most flight attendants receive training for all of these situations, and on average, it seems that about a third of flight attendants deal with a minor medical emergency every few months, a third work flights where a passenger has a medical emergency once or twice per year, and another third go years at a time without any incident.
Two of the most difficult emergencies to encounter in-flight are heart attacks and premature births. There are usually only a handful of babies born on a plane every decade, but it does happen. (Expectant mothers are not supposed to fly close to their due date, but babies are still born onboard. On domestic flights, the pilots can usually land before birth, but on trans-oceanic flights, this is not often an option. Flight attendants with training in over-water flights have to watch a child birthing video. All most flight attendants in this situation can do is get hot water and blankets to prevent infection, call for a doctor, and help the passenger push her way to motherhood.
Heart attacks are much more common than in-flight childbirth. Airlines are now making Automatic External Defibrillators (AEDs), which administer shocks to an irregular heartbeat, standard equipment on all planes. The machine is very easy to use, has few buttons and a voice prompt to guide users from start to finish. (However, with the powerful grind of the engines in-flight and the sound of your own thumping heart, it's very difficult to hear.) If a shock isn't advisable, that is, if the AED detects no heartbeat, the flight attendant is advised to begin standard CPR. Some airlines give Red Cross CPR certification, while others only provide training without certification.
Perhaps the most common of all medical assistance is calming the fearful flyer and that doesn't always mean with a Jack Daniels and Coke! Usually, nervous flyers feel horribly out of control and don't understand the mechanics of flight. There's also the old notion that if a car stalls at the side of the road, you can wait it out until help arrives, which you can't do when in the air (but a car doesn't have a second engine or enough momentum to glide for several miles). Either way, personal attention, a soothing voice and a compassionate heart helps most of the time.
Flight attendants should also be familiar with, and aware of, equipment problems. These can include an oven fire or toxic leak in the cabin (for instance, some passengers will bring camping stoves and fuel aboard, unaware of the in-flight dangers), depressurization, popped circuit breakers, broken seat backs, sharp edges on a broken cart, or inoperative galley dumb waiters.
Some mechanical problems can be solved while still at the gate; others require training to handle mid-flight. For instance, flight attendants must remember the four items to be announced when oxygen masks drop in a decompression, since they won't have time to find them in the in-flight manual (they are: do not smoke, how to use the oxygen mask, how long to stay on oxygen until the captain says it's not necessary, and fasten seatbelts). Annual recurrent training also covers use of fire extinguishers and Personal Breathing Equipment (smoke hoods), and of course, evacuation procedures.
There are many reasons to evacuate an aircraft, though they occur very rarely. Smoke in the cabin, abnormal aircraft attitude (collapsed landing gear) or any other life-threatening situation may require an evacuation. In order to save lives, the flight attendant's duty is to keep people calm, orderly, moving and reassured as the passengers jump into the evacuation slides. Some slides are large and complex, like those that inflate along the edge and down the back of the wings or from a ramp contained in the tailcone. It is important to shout loud, clear and precise commands to get people who may be in shock out of their seats, or to get people to leave their carry-on items behind. As a flight attendant, you need to be prepared for anything.
Many airlines have developed Critical Incident Stress Debriefs that follow the National Transportation Safety Board's Post-Incident Debrief (or 'meeting') to determine what happened in cases of emergency, what procedures were used, and how effective they were in reducing or preventing death or injury. The CISD is primarily for the crew members' mental health, to help them emotionally process having been through such a horrible situation. NTSB debriefs occur right after the crash, and in instances in which the flight attendant is not hospitalized, s/he may even be expected to continue her/his trip. The CISD usually takes place a few days later.
But most of the mechanical issues and delays a flight attendant deals with are handled at the gate without too much bother. Many times it's something as simple as a burnt-out indicator light in the cockpit needing to be changed, or a mild oil leak in a hydraulic line. Less frequently, mechanics might come on board during boarding to fix a broken seat, a water line that's blocked or a broken coffee maker. As airlines fight to maintain on-time records with shorter ground times, more and more non-essential items are deferred until the plane overnights and the mechanics can spend more time fixing them.
After all the passengers are on board, it's up to the flight attendants to make sure everyone has their seat belt on and electronic devices (anything that's battery operated) are turned off. Flight attendents make sure all the bags fit in an overhead bin or under the seat in front of the passenger who brought it on board. If there are bags that don't fit, they need to make sure the agents put them in the baggage chute so they can be put in with cargo. Once all that is done and overhead bins are closed, the agent closes the door. After demonstrating where the exits are and how to use the oxygen, the flight attendants take their jumpseats nearby each of the doors, which are now functioning as emergency exits. In most cases, a flight attendant is not required to sit by window exits, since those are used pretty much as a last resort (they're smaller and it's much harder to get people through them). The flight attendant seats are actually safer than passenger seats because they have a lap safety belt, a shoulder harness, and a double shoulder belt.
The best known part of a flight attendant's job is the safety demonstration. Not all airlines require the crew to physically point to the exits, but each airline does mandate a demonstration of how to use a seat belt and oxygen mask. Other minor safety items include verifying that the passengers in the exit row meet the exit row criteria (they're over 15, possess ample dexterity to operate the exit, and are able to understand crewmembers' instructions).