High Vis and High Heels: my advice to aspiring crew
Updated: Oct 25, 2022
I've been asked on several occasions now to write a blog giving my hints and tips to aspiring crew, on what it's like to be crew for both long haul and short haul airlines, how to succeed in airline recruitment days, as well as what I do for my studies towards my Masters in Human Factors in aviation (more on this in a separate post!). Now I'm not going to lie, I've been extremely hesitant about writing this blog; for the reason that so many people have been made jobless this year (pilots, cabin crew, engineers, ground staff and so many more), and it's really important that I handle this with sensitivity, honesty and tact. So I've written it, deleted it, written it, deleted it, and now I'm going to write and publish it.
I've decided that it's important that I do this, because at some point the industry is going to recover, and all of the above professionals will be needed (and then some) once more. I'm also a massive advocate for allowing people to decide for themselves what they want to achieve and pursue in their lives.... why should a whole generation of people feel as though their dreams cannot come true? (and no, you don't have to go and retrain in cyber). To me, someone who is a true dreamer, that feels almost criminal. So I've decided to do it. To show you the wonderful ins and outs, of this exciting, dynamic, ever-changing, volatile, beautiful industry we call aviation.
I'm writing from my experience, as both short haul, and long haul cabin crew, as a PPL student, and also a Masters degree student in Human Factors in aviation. It's important to note that what you'll read is purely from my experience, and that the opinions and words written are my own and not that of the companies that I've worked for. That being said, I'd like to think that I'll portray a realistic and honest view point for you all! So I've compiled a list of the most asked questions that I've received and popped them into one blog.
Why did you choose to pursue a career in aviation?
I think that for any aspiring aviator it's important to understand and hold on to the reason you decided to get into the industry. For me, there was no one specific event, more like a cumulation of happenings. I have always loved to travel, ever since I was 4 years old and hurtled along the runway to my first overseas family holiday to Mallorca. I fell in love with it then, and I fell in love hard with everything about it. The airport, the exhilaration of take-off, that smell of 'holiday' that hits you when you open the aircraft door. It really is a magical thing, and I think I was bug bitten from then.
Travel runs in my family. My heritage is highly multi-cultural and both of my parents have spent time working and living abroad. There's a running joke in my family that focuses around how when I was growing up, as we had no family around to help with childcare, and my parents both worked, I had to sit and watch teletext (if you remember that!) for summer entertainment, and wait for a flight to drop to a certain price. There's also quite a funny story about going to my Mom's office during the 6 week holidays, and being given the task of finding flights for a family of four for under £200 return. The promise was that if I found it, we could book the trip. Needless to say, I found some and we actually had a lovely week long holiday in Andalucia as a result!
I'm so lucky to have had some amazing trips abroad growing up. We always stayed off the beaten track, and aimed to experience the culture as authentically as possible, which also meant my parents encouraged me to pick up the local language (which led to me studying French and Spanish). I'm notoriously bad for dropping everything and booking a flight to somewhere completely random, and I always say that it's in my blood, because of my upbringing.
The first time I really thought about becoming Cabin Crew however, was when I was about 10 years old. I remember being on a flight to Pisa, and watching everything the cabin crew member did with pure awe. I was fascinated and from that point on, the idea was always in my mind. I was addicted to shows like Airline, and always found myself looking up to the skies to see if I could spot a plane. I was bought a trial flight lesson for a birthday present (more on this in later blogs), and all this did was fuel my love for the industry. Later, after a detour around a few other careers, and a little bit of a personal life crossroads, I spent some time with my friends who were crew, finally bit the bullet and sent my first application in to be short haul crew. Luckily, I was accepted, and for my first preference base at MAN which I couldn't quite believe.
I was addicted to everything about the airline industry from this point on. It's just an industry that gets under your skin like no other, with a lifestyle that nothing else can quite compare to. It's fast paced, ever-changing, dynamic, and sometimes scary, but you'll work with people that you'll have the strongest connection with... and for that there is truly nothing else in the world like it.
Why am I whittling on about how important it is to understand why you want to get into the industry? The aviation industry is notoriously volatile. Whatever happens in the world, be it financial crisis, pandemic, terrorism, war... it has a direct impact on the industry, and it's often the first to feel the hit and last to recover. A career in aviation can often feel like one step forward and two steps back. The average aviator can expect 2 redundancies in their career. It's competitive, can be expensive, and very much dependent on external factors that you have no control over. You HAVE to have an innate love and desire to work within the industry, and with that comes an acceptance that you will take everything that comes with it. All of the rough with the smooth. If you understand why you have chosen a career in this industry, the strength of that will carry you through the turbulent times to smoother ones.
How is it best to progress into a career as cabin crew?
If you’re looking to enter the aviation industry firstly well done on making such an amazing choice. You're in for an exciting ride, and no one career is the same as anyone else's. The first thing I would say is that there is not a specific route into the industry. I know school leavers who have gone on to do travel and tourism related courses at college and applied straight to the airlines, and equally know people who have entered the industry much later in life from having a completely different career, and both have gone on to have long, happy and successful careers . The beauty of the industry is that a good employer will hire and select specifically to create a strong onboard crew which will include a diverse mix of people, where everyone has different experience they can bring to the onboard working atmosphere.
That being said, airlines will have differing requirements so it’s worth starting to look around at the airlines you would like to consider working for for their specific requirements. Most will have a minimum height or ‘reach’ requirement, as well as the ability to fit into a cabin crew jump seat and brace with feet fully flat on the floor. They will require you to have no live criminal convictions so that you can obtain your airside ID, and UK airlines will also have the right to work in the UK stipulated as a requirement. There will be a minimum age to meet as well. Some airlines will have further restrictions from variables such as qualifications, all the way through to tattoos, so it's important to do your research early, and turn notifications on for job alerts.
The other piece of advice I have is to be flexible with your airline. Particularly post pandemic where thousands of crew have been laid off, and will be in holding pools or applying to airlines alongside new starters. Having a 'dream' airline is not a bad thing at all! I was so lucky that both times I went through recruitment, I only applied to one airline each time, and was accepted to both, but that isn't the case for some people. That's not because they're not BRILLIANT crew, it very often is just timing. But I would be tempted to be flexible. Indications currently suggest that long haul operations will take longer to recover than short haul. You might want to only fly long haul, but recruitment for these airlines might take a while to come up. You could wait a few years to apply, or you could have a couple of years flying short haul when they begin to recruit again, which would give you incredible experience and insight into the industry. You might find you enjoy it and begin to work through the promotion ranks and decide to stay! Or it might be that you still want to experience long haul, but that couple of seasons flying short haul could give you the advantage in a recruitment session.
My advice would be to if you can apply for customer service related roles in the run up to completing your applications for the airlines, this will give you the experience and skills necessary to transfer into an onboard environment, for example delivering world class service onboard, navigating service recovery and also handing disputes. Most scenario based questions involved in airline recruitment will ask about your experience dealing with the paying public, and even if you don't have experience handling travelling passengers, and working in a crew team, from a role in customer service, you will have the ability to relate your knowledge to the scenarios presented.
Long haul or short haul? Is one easier than the other, and what about the transition between the two? Should I do short haul first and then long haul, or should I move to short haul when I have a family?
I get asked this question a lot. There's so many assumptions about when the perfect time is in life to fly short haul/long haul, and the truth to it, is there is no perfect time. It is entirely a personal decision. I've heard everything from the assumption that long haul is more exhausting, and short haul allows you to have a family and be home more, to you can only be long haul crew if you've done short haul, and I can categorically say, it's all incorrect.
Both long haul and short haul operations can be exhausting in completely different ways. With long haul, the time zone crossings and long flights can be exhausting and difficult to adjust to, but short haul is equally tiring and very hard work. You can work 6 days straight getting up at 2/3am in order to operate so neither is more suited to age than the other, I know people who started long haul, and then moved to the short haul ops so they could be at home in the evenings or mornings to do the school run, equally I know crew who started short haul, moved to long haul, and still work it round a family and never looked back! I know crew that spent years flying short haul, then moved to a long haul airline, and equally know crew who spent their entire lives working long haul, to move to short haul. There really is no rule to it, and all that matters is that you're happy with the path you take. If the airline thinks you have the right qualities and experience to work for them, they will hire you. All that you have to consider, is whether the lifestyle of the airline suits your personal lifestyle, or whether you are willing to adjust your lifestyle to work for that airline. When I transferred over to flying long haul, and was due to be based at LHR but also operate out of LGW (Heathrow and Gatwick respectively), I knew I would need to move from my home in the Midlands, to the South in order to ensure I was adequately rested, and handle standby duties to the best of my ability. But some people do manage to commute it from much further afield! Honestly, whatever it is you choose, choose it based upon your lifestyle and situation rather than age, experience or any other limiting factor.
What is the application process like and what can you expect from a training course?
The application process varies from airline to airline. So it's really difficult to say what you should prepare in general. I advise as always to check the websites and emails you receive from an airline in order to ensure you understand what is expected from you, and what to prepare. In saying that, most applications will be a combination of an online application, video/telephone interview, and then an in-person assessment day. The assessment day could be in stages, with a cut of candidates in the middle of the day, or it could be a full day.
A good friend told me when I was applying for my first airline that he wasn't going to give me the answers for the telephone interview questions, as I needed to learn for myself whether I was a good fit for the airline via my natural instinct. It was the best possible advice I could have ever received. When you are interviewed by an airline remember it is also you choosing them. So much of your life changes when you fly, that you need to ensure the company fit is right for you. Equally the airlines more often than not just want to see an authentic YOU. Not a replica of me, or anyone else. YOU. Therefore I won't be giving any secrets away here, as I believe to succeed, you'll naturally bring the best of what you have to offer anyway, and that might be completely different to my idea of what is appropriate. Believe in yourself and what you bring to the party. If it doesn't happen first time, you'll know for next time what areas to improve upon, or whether you want to try for other airlines. Think of it as big learning curve, and just enjoy the process!
Your training if successful will again vary in length depending on the airline you work for, but will approximately take between 4-6 weeks. Be prepared to have to stay away from home for your training, and even relocate for your allocated base! That can be super scary if it's your first time away from home, but your work buddies and training group soon become your family. You'll learn everything from the ethos and values of the company, to standard day to day duties, emergency procedures and drills, first aid, restraint, security, service standards and so much more. It'll be tough and intense at points, every night you'll be revising for exams the next day, and there will be times you feel overwhelmed by the journey you're going through. But remember that many people before you have completed it and made it to the skies, and you have been chosen because the airline believes in you! So believe in yourself and you're halfway there. Enjoy every minute, immerse yourself in the process and your journey to wings day will absolutely fly (pardon the pun).
Is it difficult to switch from one airline's operating procedures to another?
At some point in your career, you may have to (due to redundancy or relocation), or want to (personal preference), change airline. The transition between one operator and another and how difficult you find it is I believe dependent on the learning style of the individual.
On one hand it’s easier because you know what to expect, you’ve done it once before and there will be similarities between standard operating procedure (SOP) and aviation medicine as well as general terminology, that you don’t have to spend too much time learning about.
On the other hand, it’s difficult because sometimes things like call outs, and procedure are so similar, but ever so slightly different. The pass rate for exams is high, due to the safety critical nature of the role, so 100% accuracy and word perfect callouts are necessary and therefore can cause difficulty for seasoned crew. However crew trainers are incredible people, and will tell you that it is their job to get you through the training, so as long as you revise, and focus, you'll be flying through the skies within no time.
My advice here would be to not let it put you off at all, as I actually found the transition between the two fairly manageable, but those that succeed with the transition don't dwell on the old ‘oh well at my old airline we do this’. Try to go as open minded as possible, think as though you’re learning like a beginner again, and study as hard as you did the first time. You may find that when you start operating with your new airline, you have to read up regularly on SOP to ensure that these procedures are at the forefront of your mind and not your old airline procedures but its completely doable and manageable.
What can I expect from an airline work schedule?
Your work roster and schedule will depend on so many different factors. Do you operate short haul, long haul or mixed fleet? Which aircraft types you are certified to operate on? Where is your base? What is your contract type? I.e. Permanent, seasonal, part-time, fixed-term. Does your airline allow for preference and bidding, and how is this decided for example is preference allocated based upon seniority? However with any airline what you will be told is that flexibility is key. Duties can move and alter at any point; you will likely fly weekends, holidays, bank holidays, celebrations and duties can be anything from a 4 sector day, to a 12 hour flight with 4 day layover... so it really is difficult to say what a standard roster would be but it’s exciting every time you get your roster on roster day no matter what is published.
Speaking from my experience:
When I operated short haul only, based out of MAN, we were very busy in summer, and either off (if you were seasonal) or quieter (if on a permanent contract) in the winter. With up to 16 rostered duties in a month, up to 6 days in a row with 2-3 days off, rosters were always varied. A mix of the following duties were common place on your roster:
- There and back flights: these are duties without a layover, and can be as short as a Bergerac (or even shorter at some operators!), or as long as a Paphos. They can check in as early as 4:45 am, and check out as late as 5:00 am!
- Home standby: This is a rostered block of time where you are essentially covering a number of flights in case someone goes sick, or a flight is under-crewed. You have a callout time of 2 hours from the phone ring, to reporting for duty, and you must be contactable or you will be marked as unavailable and this goes on your record.
- Airport standby: much the same as a home standby, but at the airport. Rest facilities will be provided and you act as either rescue flight cover, or to cover a last minute crew. replacement. You have little notice if you are required to operate, and can equally be sent to work out of any base in the network!
- Reserve days: you must be contactable for the time stated on these days, and a duty can be changed or added with 10 hours notice.
With long haul a similar rostering structure and duties are used however:
- Trips: You will rarely operate a there and back (unless under an exception for example during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Civil Aviation Authority granted an exception for flights to destinations such as Shanghai which could be done as a there and back with restrictions i.e. a hotel provided before, and extra crew on board), and therefore will work an average of 4-6 duties in the month. You will have approximately 1-2 nights away from home, but occasionally may get a longer trip.
- Home standby: you will have a block of days of standby rather than just one day. This is to ensure minimal roster disruption for the month if you are sent somewhere.
How do you handle time zones and jet lag?
This is something I find that people learn to deal with in their own way. The most successful people have a routine, stick with it and then you just kind of get used to it over time.
It obviously depends on the time zone difference, flight duty period, and landing time back into the base originally departed, and of course if you do struggle seek the help of your occupational health team, or even more experienced fliers who may be able to help further!
In general what works for me is accepting that for landing day, I might feel more tired than usual and my body will probably tell me when it needs to sleep, and when it needs to eat etc. What I mean is some crew can get too caught up in trying to figure out how to keep their body on the same time, and ‘beat ‘ jet lag, but the reality is that sometimes that makes it worse. Acceptance is sometimes key!
In saying that general things that can help include avoiding caffeine, and alcohol, eating nutritious healthy food, and trying to get some fresh air on landing day. I always have a landing day nap, but set my alarm so that I don’t oversleep. Equally if you are down-route, it can be really tempting to 'burn the candle at both ends'. But it's important to remember you are there for work, and crucially have to be fit to fly. Therefore if you land and are tired, there is nothing wrong with staying in and catching up on some sleep!
However on this note, jet lag and fatigue is a real serious concern for fliers, and one thing I’d like to make clear is that if you do land and feel too tired to commute to and from work, do not be afraid to communicate with your airline and ask for them to enforce their fatigue protocols. Most have options for taxis and hotels to ensure the safety of crew and they should be used when necessary. This doesn’t even just relate to long haul operations, because even short haul can cause serious fatigue. Please look after yourself flying. Your airlines will provide training on how to manage and recognise fatigue, so please take their advice, communicate with your managers, and look after yourselves when you start to fly.
What is the best thing about being cabin crew?
Easily the best thing about being cabin crew for me is the people you meet. And this works on two levels. The people you look after on board for one; in what other job can you witness engagements, first family holidays, honeymoons...honestly some of the things I’ve had the pleasure to witness is unbelievable and I love that I can really make a difference to someone’s journey and in some cases, people's lives.
The other half to this is the crew you work with. This extends beyond the cabin to flight deck, engineers, ground staff, the whole team. Some of my closest relationships and friendships have come from the people I've flown with. And even those that I haven't flown with but have connected with via social media and mutual friends. It's a strange bond but a bond in which you start your flight as strangers and leave as best friends. 3am galley chats putting the world to rights, the amazing flights with the views you can not believe you're witnessing, and difficult flights where you walk off wondering how you made it through. You go through it together and your team have your back from start to finish. A bond like that is pretty unbreakable and you just can’t put into words quite how amazing the people within the industry are. They are my inspiration, my reason to get up in the morning, and the reason I love the industry as much as I do.
What would your top tips be for success?
There is no one path to success in the industry. Even the most successful people will experience set backs, tough times, and have to adapt as the industry adapts to be fit for purpose in this ever-changing world. However a few top tips that I have found have helped me along the way are:
To be persistent: the industry can be tough to succeed in. Many people try time and time again to succeed in gaining a job BUT if you want it do not give up. It’s there for you to have if you want it but especially now, given the situation within aviation, you may have to be prepared to wait and find ways to work towards your goal that don't form part of the linear path. Maybe it's to take a course, expand your knowledge of the industry in general, or gain some customer service experience. Whatever it is, find a way to persistently work towards your goal, and do not give up.
To be passionate: 'passion' is a word that's thrown around with little care in this day and age. However, it’s key to have true passion for the industry and the role to have success.
Immersion: To be successful in speaking a language people often recommend spending time in the country that the language originates within. The same can be said for aviation. To be successful in learning the language of aviation, immerse yourself within it. Speak to people already working in the industry, ask them about their experiences of different airlines and airports. Read. Read lots. If you don't understand something (aviation uses a lot of acronyms), ask someone. We're a friendly bunch and we're here to help.
I hope this provides a snapshot of the aviation world as I know it. If you have any questions feel free to drop me a message or comment on this blog. I'll be posting soon regarding my experience as a PPL (private pilot license) student, and also a Masters in Human Factors student, so if you have any questions about these feel free to comment!
Most importantly, all I want to say is to never give up on your dreams. Dreams give us hope, and the drive to continue on through life. If you want something, you'll go after it with everything you've got. Nothing worth having is life is easy, but I can promise you it's worth every second of the uphill climb to get there.
Remember, 'your wings already exist, all you have to do is fly'