The secret life of a flight attendant

Flight attendant at airport (cartoon)By the author of The Perfect GirlfriendMeeting A-list celebrities, learning to use handcuffs, worrying you’ve left the iron on … it’s all in a day’s work for the cabin crew. Here author Karen Hamilton, whose debut thriller is set in the world of international airlines, shines a light on her former life as a flight attendant.

Tricky situations

We were trained in self-defence techniques to deal with aggressive passengers if the situation arose. It never happened to me, but they were useful skills to learn anyway – like how to get away if someone grabbed you from behind or cornered you. Even though they were only to be used as a last resort, we were taught how to use handcuffs. We’d have to practise on each other!

We learned to be aware of the exits in any venue, not just on a plane. For example, counting the number of hotel doors from our room to the closest fire exit so we would know where they were in the event of heavy smoke. I’ve found that these kind of skills stay with you. I always use the fire exit, not the lifts, if an alarm goes off anywhere, even if there isn’t an obvious threat.

Crew must be able to swim, although it was a skill I didn’t ever use for work (other than in hotel pools or beaches!). During initial training we were sent to a pool to be tested on our ability to climb out of the water and into a raft.

We were also taught basic survival techniques in the event of surviving a crash. On water, focus would be to protect the raft (by erecting a canopy, keeping it as dry as possible) and on land it would be to find the best location to protect everyone, set off beacons with location trackers, ration or divide any food or water and keep up morale.

Celebrity passengers

Usually celebrities board as late as possible and yes, they do slip on quietly without a fuss, so many passengers aren’t aware that they are on board. Some are escorted on by ground staff, but most board on their own.

In my experience, they are normally very polite, quiet and want minimal fuss. On one flight I chatted to a musician I’d long admired in the galley, who laughed when I told him how I’d been among a group of teenagers who’d tried to chase his car after a concert many years previously.

Another time, a member of ground staff told me that she would shortly be boarding a VIP who had a seat in our cabin. A passenger standing near me overheard and asked if I thought it would be someone famous. I told him that I doubted it, because they usually don’t want to draw any attention to themselves. It was then that I noticed another passenger standing nearby smiling – and I realised that she was a famous fashion designer, who had indeed slipped on unnoticed.

The worst part of the job?

Tiredness – an obvious one I guess, but it could be difficult sometimes, especially if I’d been unable to sleep before a night flight. It wasn’t always easy to sleep at the ‘right’ times.

Crew talk about sleep A LOT. Whenever we met up in the lobby before a flight, the most common question was “Did you sleep?”. There was nothing worse than getting your wake-up call in your hotel one hour before pick-up time, feeling sick with tiredness, knowing that you had to get up when it was the middle of the night back in the UK, and keep going for the next 12 to 16 hours minimum.

We had crew bunks to sleep in during long flights. I found them one of the worst places to be if you had any anxieties or issues at home, because I’d become very aware of being alone in the dark (despite other crew members also sleeping), 35,000 feet up in the air. Problems at home magnify when you’re away, and “Did I leave the gas/iron on?” takes on a whole new level of fear!

Dramatic moments

Some crew are anxious about flying (myself included). For me, that began after a landing in strong winds (there is a scene in my book, The Perfect Girlfriend, based on this).

I was operating a flight from India during an autumn storm and there were high winds. The turbulence was really bad, the aircraft was rocking and we could hear the engines straining. The crew had to be strapped in too, so we were in our seats, looking outside, just waiting to land safely. Passengers went really quiet and kept looking over at us for reassurance – which was good because I had to be professional, so it helped with my own fear (although my fellow crew member and I kept exchanging looks when no one was watching us!).

It was such a relief when we touched down; I’d never been more grateful in my life to land. I had a few days off to ‘recover’ and was really nervous about my next flight! Although it was fine, I always kept half an eye on weather reports afterwards (something I’d never done before).

Glamorous and surreal

We did stay in some amazing hotels, and sometimes we’d get free entry into local clubs and bars. Quite often things would seem surreal – to be in another part of the world, with people you barely knew, seeing sights I’d only ever read about or seen in pictures.

It was also strange sharing such amazing, exhilarating experiences knowing you may never see the people you were with again. Sometimes we would stay in contact, especially if people lived close by. Some crew commute from all parts of the country and Europe. I have lots of friends who still fly.

Some of my favourite memories must be the many views over the years from the flight deck – over Kilimanjaro, the Alps, Russia, the Great Wall of China, various deserts, and the many incredible sunsets and sunrises.

Another fond memory is when we flew from Nairobi to the Seychelles, where we then had six hours on the ground. We went to a local hotel for a seafood lunch, then swam in the sea before changing back into uniform and working back to Nairobi. It really did feel like the best job in the world that day!

Home life

It can be very disruptive and it’s hard to make plans for important events. You have to have an understanding family!

It’s very hard to go away if you have concerns or stressful issues going on at home, and it did become harder once I had children. We used to celebrate Christmas Day early or late, and I felt guilty if I couldn’t attend important events. Although it could be hard on relationships, my husband travelled too so he understood the pressures.

Although I’m anxious about flying I love the glamour and mystery of it, and the atmosphere in airports. And as for the departure boards with their list of destinations – they always stir up a strong sense of adventure and possibility in me! I loved the job and I often dream that I still fly. I do miss it.

About the author

Karen Hamilton portrait

Karen Hamilton caught the travel bug after an early childhood spent in Angola, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Belgium and Italy.

She worked as cabin crew for a major airline, before quitting in 2006 to concentrate on writing.

She lives with her husband and three sons in Hampshire.

Karen’s debut novel, The Perfect Girlfriend, is out now. The psychological thriller tells of a sociopathic flight attendant who will stop at nothing to win back her pilot boyfriend. Find it at WHSmith in the terminal at Heathrow.

Free chapter: The Perfect Girlfriend