From 40,000 feet to Frontline
'Champagne lifestyle, in 5 star hotels'. These are the words that I've seen written on more than one occasion (in one way or another) by some that think cabin crew are no more than glorified waiters in the sky. This view (although giving some of those who fly a bit of a giggle, and some a permanent sense of frustration) couldn't be more inaccurate, and seriously undermines the value of cabin crew. Moreover, this inaccuracy has never been more apparent than right now during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Thankfully, the vast amount of the general public understand and truly appreciate what cabin crew bring to the table every flight in regards to their skill, knowledge and service (to be honest I've been humbled by some of the thoughtful comments, cards and gifts that have been given to us after a duty), but there is still some way to go, particularly with even some of the mainstream media, and politicians failing to protect the integrity of the profession. However, would those that think we are no more than a 'Trolley Dolly', still think the same if they knew the ins and outs of what we go through year in year out to become and stay a part of this profession?
This particular blog is dedicated to writing about the medical knowledge and training that cabin crew go through in order to be considered qualified to fly. It's this knowledge that during the past year has been called upon to help health organisations like the NHS during the pandemic, with thousands of crew volunteering and/or taking up paid employment in a variety of medical environments in order to support frontline staff and help the nation through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before I start, I just want to say that in no way does the training that cabin crew undergo match or compare to professional nursing, being a doctor, or paramedic training, and I'm certainly not suggesting that. What it does do is enable us to work within the parameters of our training and job role, stabilise the conditions of passengers who may be in need of treatment, train to work alongside medical professionals without hindering them, and also aim to preserve life long enough to allow a medical professional to take over and provide more advanced medical care. For example in the air you may be several hours away from the nearest airport at any one time, therefore it is important that we are able to keep passengers as comfortable and well as we possibly can do until a doctor or paramedic with higher skill level can take over. We are also trained to deliver a thorough handover to a medical team so that they know and understand exactly what steps we have taken to get to that point, without any confusion arising.
As well as undergoing rigorous safety and emergency procedure training, studying and practising to ensure VIP service with a smile and having to learn the exact locations and purpose of every single piece of equipment on board a variety of different aircraft, cabin crew also undergo AvMed (or aviation medicine) training. During both initial training, and yearly recurrent exams, cabin crew train to handle a hugely diverse range of medical situations that may occur during any duty. These incidents range from the less uncommon such as how to effectively treat cuts, burns, sprains, and travel sickness, to the (what we hope will be) much rarer scenarios such as cardiac arrest, airway management, and childbirth. A crew member may go through their entire working life, and never have to provide passengers with more than a plaster, but the most important thing is that should any situation arise on board, you can travel peacefully in the knowledge that your crew will have trained to handle that situation, and will do everything within their powers to help rectify it.
Something I'm asked often is what medicine and equipment do we carry on board to be able to look after our customers. We have a large variety of equipment and treatments we can offer, not only to our passengers, but to qualified medical professionals should they be volunteering to take over treatment of a passenger onboard. We are trained to utilise all of the items within these kits, to read checklists, and be able to understand medical terminology so that we can communicate effectively with doctors, nurses, and paramedics as to what we carry in our kits. We also are able to use a service onboard that allows us to communicate with medical professionals on the ground, who will know what equipment/medicine each airline will carry on each flight, and they can advise as necessary what we need to to tell the medical professionals, or should we not have a volunteer willing to assist, what we need to administer to help the passenger as best as we can.
I have taken three initial aviation medicine courses, each one as thorough as the next and guided by the global standards for first aid, health and medicine. I am immensely proud of the ability of the crew around the world to manage and control most situations that arise onboard, and I can honestly say that the quick and correct actions of the crew I have worked with, have made all the difference when it comes to the health and wellbeing of our passengers. We've all seen and read stories of some of the more astonishing situations onboard such as the very rare birth, and the success of these situations is down to the knowledge and ability of the crew onboard to handle whatever comes their way.
When I first became cabin crew, I honestly thought it would be months before I needed to use any of my medical knowledge. How wrong I was. Within mere flights I was proven wrong and was required to be part of the team that took care of a very poorly passenger. Through my career I really have had all sorts of experience from treating bad hangovers, managing children with travel sickness, and controlling minor bleeds. There's also been incidents in the airport that I've been first on the scene to attend, so have had a moral obligation to assist with and handover to airport medics. Onboard there has also been the odd rare occasion of fitting, loss of consciousness, and struggling to breathe, and that's just in a few years of flying; those much more senior to me will have had so much more experience.
As with all procedures onboard, it is the teamwork that ensures that we manage to succeed in our goals and priorities. We are trained to delegate and take on certain roles within every scenario, so that when attending to the scene of an emergency, every crew member understands the role they are to play, and each role has specific responsibilities. For example you may be the crew member in charge of collecting equipment, you may be responsible for administering treatment or you may in control of the communications with the pilots in the flight deck. Remember that the pilots are a key part of the team, and whilst you're managing the situation in the cabin, the pilots will be discussing operational requirements such as potential airfields that could be an option for diversions if necessary, and talking to doctors on the ground. Since the tragic events of 9/11, the flight deck door remains closed during flight under all circumstances, and therefore cabin crew are the eyes and ears for the pilots in order to gain situational awareness. Clear and accurate communication is vital in order to manage the operation, without it incorrect decisions risk being made and these can be both financially and ethically costly.
Despite hoping we never need to use our medical training, we accept and are prepared to use it as often or sporadically as required. However I don't think any crew member expected to be using their training to assist the NHS and medical professionals on the front line of a global pandemic.
Due to the severe decline in passenger numbers travelling, as a result of global lockdowns, and quarantine restrictions, numbers of employed and active cabin crew and pilots have sadly declined. Many were made redundant, offered unpaid leave or have spent most of the last year on furlough. The financial implications of not working or reduced working patterns, have led aviation professionals to seek employment in the health sector, as well as crew/pilots simply wanting to help out. I know I can speak for myself and many other crew when I say that morally, I feel like I have an obligation to assist where I can, and put the skills and training we have to good use. These skills have been recognised by the NHS as desirable, and therefore crew have been asked directly to step forward where they can. Plus with the amount of colleagues that have also taken up positions in the health sector, it almost feels like you're back all working together.... except this time on the frontlines rather than at 40,000 feet.
Crew have great communication skills, gained through the emphasis placed upon accurate, and clear communication, and teamwork on initial and recurrent training, so the call lines such as 111, 999 and track and trace have taken on lots of ex and current crew, to help assist with the high amount of calls that the NHS services have been receiving during this pandemic. With the flexible working hours required, and high pressure environment, both of which crew are well accustomed to, it has been a good match for many of my colleagues that have chosen to work here.
I have spoken previously about my time with 'Project Wingman'; a charity that was set up to give the NHS workers, a 'first-class' lounge experience, in return for all of their hard work ensuring that patients are receiving first-class treatment. Airline workers from a multitude of airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Easyjet, Jet2, Norwegian, and Loganair (among many more!) have come together to prove we truly are 'united by wings', by using our skills to help and improve the wellbeing of staff within the NHS, during this difficult time. I have been involved (and am still actively involved with Project Wingman!) since May 2020, and can say that it is a pleasure to be able to provide some respite for those who are working tirelessly.
With the roll-out of the vaccine, crew have been called upon to take on a variety of different roles in the vaccinator hubs. Roles taken on could be anything from marshalling and registering people upon arrival, to taking on training to monitor and treat patients post-vaccination if required, to actually administering the vaccine itself. Airline crew are the perfect candidates for this, not only because of the training they have completed to pass qualifications to fly, but also because they are used to taking extra training, and processing new information, so can ensure they train fully to ensure patient safety, and protect the integrity of the vaccine programme. I’m really looking forward to starting work volunteering on the vaccine rollout next week. After this virus has destroyed the lives of so many, and essentially decimated the aviation industry, I can’t wait to do something to contribute to making life safer and normal again.
These are just some of the many roles that aviation professionals have taken on during this pandemic, not to mention the many that have started to work in care, recommenced positions as nurses or paramedics (a lot of crew have come from these industries historically due to the crossovers in aptitudes between the two professions), and those that now work in a variety of different roles in the hospitals such as bank staff, ward hosts, and health care assistants. I know of many that have also taken the step to retrain at Universities around the country to progress into full-time roles in the medical industry!
I think it's astonishing the amount of information that those who work onboard aircraft can learn, process and retain. Never mind the sheer skill of great aviation professionals to do their job offering a world-class service incredibly well, whilst constantly monitoring all passengers to ensure a sense of readiness to respond to any unplanned situation onboard, whether that be safety related, or medical. However one thing that stands out to me is the willingness of crew to put other people before themselves. This is just one of the many characteristics that makes crew the incredible people they are. Whilst it has always amazed me during flights, it is this willingness to help that now makes me more proud than ever to have worked, and continue to work alongside such inspiring people.
I know during the last 10 months, I have felt a little lost on more than one occasion, and I know I'm not alone in that feeling. To suddenly have a large part of what forms your identity completely destroyed, as the aviation industry has and continues to be, as well as be torn away from the people you spend day in day out with, is incredibly painful. To be able to assist in some way with something that gives you a sense of purpose, provide the camaraderie and team environment that we are so used to, as well as do something productive to end this nightmare that we are all living... well to be quite honest is priceless. I and so many others I know are eternally grateful to the organisations, institutes and medical professionals that have welcomed us with open arms. Thank you to the NHS not only for everything you are doing and continue to do to fight for the health of the nation, but also for giving many of us a reason to fight on, and to get up every day and fight for the future normal to return. It's like the saying goes...
... 'Helping others, is the way we help ourselves'. x