Updated: Jun 14
With Women's Month in South Africa drawing to a close, I have one last opportunity to highlight the story of a South African woman excelling in aviation. With all the attention so far being on female pilots, I decided it's time to shine the light on ladies working in the cabin. Especially since I used to work as a cabin crew and I think people often underestimate how challenging their job is.
I worked as a flight attendant in the Middle East for two years in order to help fund my pilot training and to learn more about the aviation industry. In the process I made a handful of incredible friends- Sarah being one of them. We joined the airline at the same time and met at O.R. Tambo International Airport (in Johannesburg) when moving to the Middle East. When I resigned, she was at the airport to see me off.
Sarah originally trained as a flight attendant in South Africa before moving to the Middle East. This world traveler is filling you in on the realities of the job, and giving great advice to others that want to join her. For those of you who think the job is all glitz and glamour, read further to learn more.
1) When did you realize that you want to become a cabin crew?
After High School, like a lot of us, I didn't know what to do as a career so I took a "gap year.” I thought I’d like to work in the police but my dad was against it, so at the end of that year, I decided to enroll in a one month course to learn more about the role of a cabin crew. I was simply curious...
The moment I learned that being a cabin crew is basically the same as being a security guard under cover, and that I'll have fun traveling while doing it, is when I knew that this is the job for me. I wanted to help people and now I can. I'm so happy because I do what I love and it's not just about the traveling. It's the hospitality, travelling and safety of others that touches me. To see them smiling- from young children to elderly passengers- makes me smile and it is so rewarding to know that I put a smile on their faces.
2) What is the difference in cabin crew training in South Africa compared to the training in the Middle East?
There were mainly subtle differences- just like every company has its own way of doing business and every teacher has their own method to teach the same material. But there is one thing that truly stands out. In South Africa we learned the basics of physics behind flying before learning our duties as cabin crew. In the Middle East we skipped the first and went straight into learning about the cabin crew job and the company. I must say, it is nice to know the basics of flying. It is one of the 'tricks of the trade' for dealing with nervous passengers or children. The more you know, the more you can help put others at ease.
3) What type of work experience do you recommend to people who want to become cabin crew in the Middle East but do not meet the 21 year old age minimum?
After my South African cabin crew course, I was still too young to join any airline. I stayed in the hospitality industry and started working on 'Rovos Rail' (a five star train). It was long hours and hard work but I gained a lot of experience in a short time period.
What I recommend to others is to do any job in the hospitality industry. However, if you have the time and finances to qualify in anything else, it will make your life easier. For example, studying in the 'health' fields (like nursing) will make you better able to treat ill passengers on board. It could also help advance your aviation career in the long run by moving into the training department. Imagine teaching aviation health to all the new joining cabin crew at your airline one day...
4) What do you tell aspiring cabin crew when they tell you they want this job to travel the world?
'Get your head out of the clouds and grow up. You still need to work for that money.' Cabin crew travel the world but don't see much of it. You are so tired and jet lagged that in your time off, you just want to relax and sleep. It's not all bad- If you can manage your health and sleep, you can travel on your days off. And there are a lot of benefits, a lot!
5) What is the most challenging thing about your job?
Three things: the hours, the jet leg and the people.
Work hours are unpredictable and unstable.
You will always have jet leg so it will become a part of who you are. Just find a way to keep yourself healthy to cope with it.
And last but not least, people. Cabin crew have to trust each other and it's easier if you’re from the same county for effective communication. But in the Middle East we work with different nationalities, cultures and traditions on a daily basis (since the airlines recruit crew from all over the world). It is possible but it has its challenges and makes you value clear communication. Just when you manage the differences within your own crew, then you can deal with the rest of the passengers. Again, different nationalities, cultures and traditions all on board one flight.
6) What do you wish passengers knew to make your job easier?
Where do I begin?
How to use the toilet and clean up after themselves. Cabin crew are there for your safety first. If you make a mess, we will have to take the time to make the lavatory presentable for the next passenger.
To know that we are not a fast food stand. We are serving you food between 20 000 - 40 000 feet above sea level. We can only serve you what we already have on board. If we run out or we don’t have your preference, there’s nothing we can do about it.
If your flight is delayed, we understand your frustration because you are not the only one that wants to reach the destination. We as crew have families too, so we also don't want to be in this situation. However, we are the best you’ve got under these circumstances and we are good at what we do, so let us do our work.
We are here to help, so don't be scared to say something. Since we have seen and heard it all, there will be no judgement. Rather tell us if you feel unwell so we can help you early on before your illness develops into something more complicated. We are trained in first aid after all and we have access to certain medicines on board.
If you see the crew on their 'jump seats' with their seat belt on, DON'T STAND UP. If the captain tells us to sit down, that means you too. When the aircraft takes off or lands, don't stand up until the seat belt sign is switched off or engine is switched off (for landing). If we are seated, you remain seated. Safety first.
7) How do you cope with being away from your family, since you moved to the Middle East for this job?
At first, I was too excited to finally start my dream job to realize what moving really entailed. I kept thinking this was 'too good to be true' and the prospect of finally ‘seeing the world’ distracted me from certain realities.
But, after the busy six weeks of job training, it started to sink in and reality hit me. I finally realized I’m in a different country, alone. It took a toll on me but I just threw myself in my work.
After two years, I realized that I am alone but so are the rest of my co-workers. We are alone together. So the only thing that can make you truly live again, is to go and have a life. It was hard but it's worth it! I’ve now made my friends my ‘family’ away from my real family and we support each other through everything- good and bad.
Every year our airline gives us one ticket back home for leave so I make sure to go back and visit everyone I left behind. I also bring my family to the Middle East to spend time with me and to see what life is like in another part of the world.
8) A word of advice for those that did not get the job after an assessment day?
To be accepted in any airline takes time. You have to be very patient and determined. Basically, bother them with your CV so they get so irritated that they'll give you a chance. Haha, just kidding.
With that said, do not get discouraged if you don’t get the job the first time. Even I had to try more than once. If you get invited to the interview, just do your best. If you don't make it, try again (after the six months waiting period). Use each assessment day as a learning experience so you can improve in your next attempt.
Just remember that in order to be a cabin crew one has to serve and protect. But service essentially comes second. You have to be open to new things, new people, new foods, new experiences...
To be a cabin crew you have to know how to not take anything personally and to be kind at all times. Even when something isn’t your fault, you’ll have to smile to deal with difficult passengers. After all, cabin crew are the face of their airlines. If you want your airline to thrive, you have to show them your best side.
I'm a cabin crew. What's your superpower?
The views presented in this article are solely the author's based on available information at the time of writing. The purpose of this blog is to inform readers, not to provide professional advice. Readers are advised to research further and consult relevant professionals, such as flight training schools. Readers are cautioned when acting on information provided and assume all risk from such actions.