How did it all start? you’re asking.
Mum and dad were beginning to give little hints about not financing my lifestyle forever so it was time to plan a career.
A friend had just been accepted as an international flight attendant and he urged me to try out too, telling me that it was the best job in the world. You received all this cash to fly free around the world, stayed in the best hotels, also free. Mmmmm ….. nothing not to like about that. It sounded like a life of fun.
In late 2001, I applied to become an international flight attendant. The timing was awful. Really awful. There was an oversupply of people wanting flight attendant jobs at Qantas. Their main competitor in the domestic market, Ansett, had just collapsed and the former Ansett employees were queuing up at Qantas’s door. (To get a rough idea how some see the ‘fun’ of being a flight attendant – recently 100,000 people applied for 4,000 jobs at Emirates).
It didn’t bother me all that much whether or not I was accepted. Because I’d lived in London and Greece, I considered I’d already travelled extensively. Consequently, when I was called for an interview, I was fairly relaxed, even though it turned out to be a serious business. Qantas had a 6 tier interview process; the vetting was full on – they had to be sure that the candidates they chose would fit into ‘The Qantas Family’.
On the interview day, in the waiting area there were a lot of, obviously, ex Ansett crew – gay guys and women with their hair in buns, wearing blue suits and pearls, looking as if they’d stepped out in their Ansett uniforms. I don’t know how many people they were interviewing, but I was surprised how quickly the numbers thinned out. Our height was measured: height requirements 163 to 183 centimetres – are related to safety and were clearly specified on the application form. Nevertheless lots turned up under the minimum height. Women, in particular, thought they could sneak through it if they wore high heels; naturally, we were asked to remove our shoes before measurements.
We also had to have the correct documentation, including a Responsible Service of Alcohol Certificate and an active passport with at least six months’ validity, which is crucial for US visas. Incorrect height and incomplete documentation eliminated about a quarter of the applicants.
When I was told I’d made it through the first round, I counted myself lucky. There were so many stories floating around about people who had applied time and time again and had been knocked back every time.
The next round involved group exercises. One was a test of communication skills that was like playing charades. One person at the table of eight had to look at a picture of an object, then demonstrate to everyone else – not what the object was, but how to put together the object. This particular exercise was all about time management and communication. It tripped up a lot of recruits.
Another of the group exercise questions related to our decision making capability in an emergency. We were asked to imagine a scenario where the plane was about to ditch into the sea. There were 5 passengers, but only 4 could fit on the life-raft. We had to say who we would leave behind from among a priest, a pregnant woman, a terrorist deportee, a police officer and a young child, and also give a reason. Everyone else in my group chose either the terrorist – making a moral judgement about that person’s right to live – or the priest (the most popular choice), reasoning that the priest already had a relationship with God and would be happy to go to a better place. I chose the police officer because I believed he would be physically fit and most likely to have had survival training and was therefore, the best equipped to stay alive until rescued.
I made it to the next round.
In the very last round, there was a tricky panel interview before three recruiters. They tried to lull applicants into a false sense of security and then see if they could catch us out. They would ask you about the destinations Qantas flew to and see if you knew each one’s famous landmarks.
One of the crucial questions was why you wanted to work for Qantas and what you could bring to the airline. This was the question where many would-be flight attendants let down their guard and said that they had heard it was a really good job where you got to travel the world on the cheap and shop in great places. Qantas didn’t care if you wanted to go to London to shop at Harrods, they just wanted to know you were going to be a responsible member of the Qantas Family.
This was followed by a one-on-one interview with the most senior member of the selection team. By the end of the day, about 50 of us remained – the ones who got jobs, provided we passed the general health check, which included tests for drug and alcohol, bone density, sight and hearing.
The next day, I got the good news via email: “Qantas accepts you as a flight attendant. Welcome. We’ll be back to you within the next six months.”
I was in. The secret world of the flight attendant was about to be unveiled to me.
The 6 months became 8 months, then 9 months. While I was waiting to be called, ready to go as soon as that phone rang, I started to daydream about where I’d be off to first: Paris, Rome, New York. I used to gaze in the window of the travel agent’s looking at destinations and all the interesting things to do. I was in and life was about to begin. Why was it taking so long?
After the attack on the Twin Towers which happened on 11 September, not surprisingly, people all over the world were nervous about flying and consequently there was a huge downturn in demand in the international market that lasted for a couple of years.
As compensation, we as yet untrained recruits were each offered a role as a casual in the domestic division. I took it.
The training covered service and safety. You know the expression ‘chalk and cheese’? Well service training and safety training were that way. The service people were all about detail and passenger comfort and the safety department was about the emergency procedures if an accident occurred. Service people were all ‘darling this’ and ‘darling that’ and safety crew were commandos. In one safety training module – in which a plane had supposedly propelled towards the ground and we had to evacuate survivors – there we all were with our torches out, looking under seats before joining passengers down the steep slide. We were feeling proud that a good job had been done, until a Gestapo-type training woman screamed “Fail”, which took the wind out of our sails. She had our attention.
Had we gone through all the different checklists? Yes.
What about the second last one, checking all areas? Yes.
‘NO!” she screamed. We had checked under the seats, but not in the lockers. What if an infant or child had flown up during the impact and got stuck in one of them!
Shit, I thought. But I never made that mistake again.
We were all new to this game and couldn’t wait to graduate. It was six hard weeks before we got the feel of those shiny new uniforms.
When I first started flying, I loved the way you were treated while wearing the uniform. As you walked through the airport with puff-chested pride, people would stop and compliment you. You could skip queues. No lining up at security. And the comraderie among the crews was terrific.
After I’d been working the flights for a while, I realized that I’d wised up to a lot of human behavior. It was easy to identify the inflated businessman trying for an upgrade, the nervous travelers (one lady even asked me if someone had bothered to check that all the screws holding the aircraft together had been tightened), and the holiday makers ready to start their holiday. There were plenty of self-important celebrities who would be as nice as pie until you told them ‘no’ they were not getting an upgrade, and suddenly you got the cold shoulder.
Even though I did learn a lot doing domestics, it wasn’t what I’d signed up for originally and I hankered for more. So after almost 2 years of domestics, I was finally able to transfer to the international division. Paris, Rome, New York … here I come.