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March 10, 2009

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Since flight attendants spend most of their days onboard and at the airport, it's important to understand how both places are laid out.

Going through security is required, and takes some time. The security process involves heaving heavy bags onto belts to go through X-ray machines, emptying out your pockets, and even taking your shoes off and walking barefoot through a metal detector, then recollecting everything before heading to the gate. It's invasive, it's annoying, it's tedious and it's mandatory. However, any crewmember in uniform is usually given some preferential treatment when it comes to the lines, though this varies from airport to airport and is not standard policy. Some airports even have separate lines available to first class and crew.

The heart of a flight attendant's workday off the plane takes place at operations. At some airports, flight attendant operations is inside security and at other airports it's outside. Operations is that area behind closed doors marked "Authorized Personnel Only" where the managers have their offices, where the computers are kept for signing in for a flight and checking schedules, where flight attendants have their mailboxes (usually just a file folder in a filing cabinet) and where flight attendants relax in between flights - the flight attendant's version of the office water cooler. But operations is also where the uniform police lurk around unsuspecting corners, waiting to find flight attendants in violation of regulation uniform code. Some enjoy spending time in 'Ops,' as it's called, and others spend as little time there as possible, preferring to spend down time waiting at the gate or elsewhere.

"On Duty" managers handle queries from flight attendants; they'll tell you whether you need a passport to fly to Canada, help swap working assignments for flight attendants on the same flight, or help fill out an insurance form. Sometimes training is even done at operations in conference rooms nearby. It's the closest thing to an office a flight attendant will have.

The cockpit holds all the controls needed to fly the plane. Post-September 11th, all U.S. airlines are required to have reinforced cockpit doors. In most cases, the cockpit door closes just before departure and doesn't open again until after arrival at the gate. To communicate with the pilots, the flight attendants have several telephones located throughout the airplane by each of the emergency exit doors. Once or twice during longer flights, one pilot might come out to use the restroom, in which case passengers will be kept back from the area and a flight attendant will go into the cockpit while the pilot is in the cabin.

Most of the doors on the airplane serve more than one purpose. Forward doors on the left hand side are used to enter or exit the plane during boarding or deplaning. After takeoff, the flight attendant connects the emergency slide contained within the door to the fuselage; this way, in an emergency, when she opens the door, the slide stays connected to the plane as it unfolds and inflates. Several of the doors, especially on the right side of the plane, are also service hatches. Caterers use those doors to take away used carts of soft drinks, food and other supplies, and replace them with clean supplies for the next flight. Also, airplane cleaners may use these doors to bring clean blankets, magazines, cups, paper towels and other supplies on to the plane.

The galley is usually the area passengers first see upon boarding. The galley has counter space that stores meals and drawers containing ice and sodas or plates and glasses. The carts have a brake pedal near the bottom so they stay put, and there are also special levers connected to the countertops that keep the carts secure. Above the countertops are special ovens and coffeemakers designed just for airplane use. The ovens are extra deep and narrow with four or five slats that allow long racks to be placed inside them. The hot meals are packed in porcelain or plastic dishes and placed on the oven racks. Flight attendants take the racks with the meals out of the carts after take-off, put them in the ovens, cook the meals (which are already partially cooked, just like TV dinners), and then place the hot racks back in the carts to serve the meals. It sounds simple enough, but it's notconsidering that the space in the galley is big enough for about one and a half people, enough food is cooked there to serve a wedding party.

Around the galley and entry door, there are a few little cubby holes and compartments that contain emergency equipment, including fire extinguishers, first aid kits, oxygen bottles and more.

Either next to the cockpit or between first class and coach, there is a bathroom, which is called a lavatory in airline lingo. Lavatories are unisex and very, very cramped. In addition to the toilet and sink, there are usually additional supplies such as extra soap, cups, paper towels and sanitary napkins hidden behind the mirror or in a cabinet under the sink. This allows flight attendants to replenish supplies during the flight if they run out.

Airplane lavatories can be problematic. People sometimes throw paper towels and diapers into the toilet bowl, which clogs the valve that flushes the toilet into the tanks. When something does get stuck, it means that the toilet won't work for the rest of the flight. Passengers also still occasionally try to smoke in the lavatory. The smoking itself doesn't do any harm; it's the cigarette butt that's the danger. Instead of throwing the burning cigarette into the toilet bowl, some might ditch their butts in the garbage can. Even though the smoker might think the cigarette is out, there's a chance it could cause the paper towels in the garbage to smolder and catch fire.

In the coach section, there are many more seats than in first class - and only two or three flight attendants. Since airplanes cost so much to operate and passenger tickets often just barely offset those costs, airlines usually try to squeeze every last seat onto the plane that they can. That means there aren't very many special places dedicated for flight attendant use, such as additional closets or overhead bins in the galleys for flight attendant bags.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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