Aviation’s Flight Attendants: Our True First Responders

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Aviation’s Flight Attendants: Our True First Responders

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Aviation’s Flight Attendants: Our True First Responders
Francis Spranza
July 20, 2011

History

Heinrich Kubis became the world's first flight attendant in March, 1912, when he began caring for passengers and serving food aboard Germany'sDELAG zeppelin LZ-10 Schwaben.Kubis was in Hindenburg's dining room when the ship burst into flame at Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937. When the Hindenburg sank close enough to the ground, Kubis encouraged passengers and crew to jump from the windows and jumped to safety himself. Kubis landed without injury and was not hurt in the disaster. 1

By the roaring twenties, the US air carrier "Stout" began employing stewards on Ford Tri-motor flights between Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan.

As aviation evolved so did the role of the Flight Attendant.With duties drawn from the maritime role of steward, purser and chief steward, flight attendants quickly assumed the role of preparing meals, overseeing the cleaning of the aircraft, accounting for stores and provisions, as well as seeing to any special need of each passenger on board. From the earliest days, flight attendants were given the responsibility for collecting and handling money, accounting for the aircraft manifest and ensuring the safety of the aircraft in flight.

It was not until 1930 that a 25 year old nurse named Ellen Church became the first female Flight Attendant.Hired by United Airlines, Church acted as nurse, steward, purser and flight safety officer.Radical for its time, the job was only one of a few to permit women in the aviation workplace.As evolution would have it, by 1936, they had all but replaced their male counterparts.2 Today, while the majority of cabin crews are made up of females, a substantial number of males have re-entered the profession since the mid 1970's.

Hindenberg to 9/11: Evolution: The Role of First Responder

Anyone who has ever traveled by air is familiar with the more mundane tasks of Flight Attendants.From the ritualistic pre-flight safety briefing – largely ignored by seasoned travelers- to the serving up of peanuts, cocktails and pillows, flight attendants are largely perceived by the traveling public as little more than high flying waiters, waitresses and customer service representatives.Nothing could be farther from reality.

Today, as on that fatal day in May 1937, the flight attendant's primary role is to ensure passenger safety. This means far more than simply ensuring all electronic devices are turned off on takeoff, everyone is in the correct seat with their seatbelt fastened, and lavatory smoke detectors are not disabled.

"Prior to each flight, flight attendants attend a safety briefing with the pilots and lead flight attendant. During this briefing they go over safety and emergency checklists, the locations and amounts of emergency equipment and other features specific to that aircraft type. Boarding particulars are verified, such as special needs passengers, small children travelling as unaccompanied or VIPs. Weather conditions are discussed including anticipated turbulence. Prior to each flight a safety check is conducted to ensure all equipment such as life vests, torches and firefighting equipment are on board, in the right quantity, and in proper condition. Any unserviceable or missing items must be reported and rectified prior to takeoff. They must monitor the cabin for any unusual smells or situations. They assist with the loading of carry-on baggage, checking for weight, size and dangerous goods. They then must do a safety demonstration or monitor passengers as they watch a safety video. They then must "secure the cabin" ensuring tray tables are stowed, seats are in their upright positions, armrests down and carry-ons stowed correctly and seat belts fastened prior to takeoff. 3

Flight Attendants today face daily, an array of grumpy businessmen, intoxicated travelers, misbehaving children and simply rude individuals. With each takeoff and landing, add to these challenges a new and far greater danger to passengers, crew and aircraft.Since the events of 9/11 flight attendants have become- by default- the airlines' first responders not only to issues of safety onboard, but by circumstance responsibility for security of the aircraft, its passengers and crew while in-flight.

Flight attendants were the most consistent source of information on 9/11 when, at the risk of their lives, they phoned airline operations personnel to let them know about the hijackings; they even provided seat numbers and descriptions of the hijackers. Flight attendants Sandra W. Bradshaw and CeeCee Lyles were most certainly involved with the in-cabin attack on the terrorists aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania instead of into a building on Pennsylvania Avenue. Later, in one of the few instances of terrorism thwarted in the act, a diminutive flight attendant physically prevented a fanatic from lighting a fuse to a shoe-bomb that would have downed American Airlines Flight 63 in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.4

Shortly after the incidents of 9/11, most all US-based airlines revised their training to include physical protection techniques in the event of emergencies as part of the accepted training curriculum.Flight attendants today, are to be trained to be offensive during attacks rather than simply obeying the demands of perpetrators commands.5

Today and Tomorrow: Enhancing the Skill Curve

In last week's article highlighted the dynamics of interpersonal interactions that occur between flight attendants, CSR's and with the traveling public.Flight attendants now find themselves routinely trained in areas such as: aircraft emergency procedures – including Aircraft Cabin Fires- (for each type of equipment in use); key aspects of US 14 CFR; HAZMAT recognition; crew resource management; security / bomb threat and hijacking operations; incidents over water; incidents occurring above 25,000 feet and key aspects of ground operations; in accordance with 14 CFR 121.415(a)(1) and 14 CFR 135.329(a)(1).

Many airlines also require additional Flight Attendant training in accordance with USC 135.331 & 121.417 to enhance onboard emergency response skills. While more frequent situations may include a bleeding nose, illness, small injuries, intoxicated passengers, aggressive and anxiety stricken passengers, flight attendant responsibility for the security of the aircraft, crew and passengers has, since 9/11, become globally acknowledged.At a recent Washington DC press conference, Flight Attendants CWA (AFA-CWA) President Veda Shook told attendees:
  • As first responders in the cabin, a Flight Attendant's foremost responsibility is to help protect the safety and security of our passengers.
Evolving responsibilities give rise to the need for an ever increasing skill set on the part of Flight Attendants.Old standards such as Cabin Emergency Response, evacuation procedures, and crew management now share requirements with basic air operator security, bomb and hijack response Conflict Resolution techniques and proactive 'situational awareness' (non-racial passenger threat identification techniques).

Conclusion

Despite the seemingly overwhelming desire of the motion picture and television industries to portray Flight Attendants as mindless nymphets purveying pretzels and beer while sashaying about the cabin in miniskirts, or by contrast, some sort of deranged Quasimodo demanding your cellphone, computer and iPod is turned off IMMEDIATELY, of course, in reality nothing is further from the truth.This fabricated image of Flight Attendants is no more akin to reality, than the 1982 U.S. television comedy Police Squad8 was to the NYPD.

The bottom line here is that Flight Attendants always were – as we see through the valiant actions of Heinrich Kubis--and remain, aviation's true First Responders.Acknowledging their role of readiness, response and recovery during incidents such as the 9/11 tragedy, TWA Flight 1 and British Airways Flight 2069 truly defines their position as "First Responders".As such, air operators, CAA officials and International Regulators must re-think issues such as the training curriculum in place, role and responsibilities commensurate to the job at hand.
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