“I have a date! I have a date! I have a date!” I squealed, as I ran around the hotel room in Orlando. My best friend Pamsy, who was still suffering from jet lag, peered out from under the floral bed cover.
“We should go out and celebrate,” she said, with a yawn.
“It’s a bit early for drinking.”
“I don’t mean with alcohol,” she croaked. “We can celebrate with food.”
“Perfect,” I said, smiling. “Let’s go to Denny’s and pig out.”
“Deal,” she said, sitting up. “What date does your training course start?”
Less than two week’s later, on a dank January morning, I joined the sea of commuters waiting on the platform for the train to London. My stomach was doing somersaults but when I finally arrived (almost three hours later) at Cranebank, British Airways training centre, my nerves had morphed into excitement.
Little did I know that several of the people I met on that first day of training, back in 1989, would become decades long friends. Friends who shared experiences unique to cabin crew as well as life events we all go through.
One of the most exciting days of the six-week training course was the day we found out where we’d be heading on our supernumerary flight. I had my heart set on New York and felt almost sure that’s where I’d be going, so when I opened the envelope and saw the airport code for JED instead of JFK, I was shocked.
Stepping onboard the TriStar in uniform for that flight to Saudi Arabia is one I’ll never forget. I felt apprehensive and anxious, trying desperately to remember everything we’d learned in class. But, once the announcement was made that passengers were about to board, a feeling of calm came over me and from that point on, working onboard became second nature.
On that supernumerary trip to Jeddah, I spent my twenty-second birthday at a beach club, in temperatures I never knew were possible, surrounded by ex-pats and crew from various other airlines. I went sailing for the first time that day and remember feeling conflicted when it was time to don the burka over our swimsuits, for the short drive on the shuttle bus back to the hotel.
In my first year of flying on the Lockheed TriStar and the Boeing 747, I visited twenty-six destinations in nineteen countries and spent approximately eighty-three days in the air. When you consider the circumference of the earth is calculated at 24,901 miles, I flew around the world more than eight times that first year alone.
Life as cabin crew exposed me to people from all over the world and all walks of life. Being onboard, surrounded by hundreds of passengers, many of who don’t speak the same language or share the same customs, taught me to be patient and understanding of other people’s needs. It showed me how to manage the vast array of passenger’s expectations, all whilst maintaining a professional air.
Working as a team with your crew (most of whom you met for the first time in the briefing room an hour before) is key to the success of the flight. It’s reassuring to know that you all share the same training and that should something go awry, those Safety and Emergency Procedures and hours spent in Aviation Medicine will be called upon.
At the end of a long haul duty day, with flight times exceeding twelve hours, you go to your hotel room in a foreign land, in a place perhaps you’ve only ever read about. Managing jet lag is par for the course and I learned that even when I wanted to sleep, it was much better to force myself to get up and socialize with my crew. Some of the friends I made during those long flights and trips remain close today because of the bond we developed from working so closely together and relying on each other, both on and off the aircraft.
Being crew taught me to appreciate my time at home and not take everyday life for granted. It’s not a given that the leave you requested for your best friend’s wedding will be approved and good luck trying to start a relationship with the cute guy you just met in your local pub, after you tell him you’ll be away for the next two weekends, on a trip you’re getting paid for.
Having said that, the benefits of being cabin crew far outweigh the negatives associated with it. Going from sipping champagne in a trendy San Francisco nightspot one week to delivering supplies to an orphanage in Zambia the next, became a lifestyle I continued to miss long after I left British Airways. The ability to travel with ease from country to country and see firsthand how other people live has long stayed with me and given me a much deeper appreciation of life.
On Christmas morning in the year I joined, two hours after our crew party wound up, my alarm shrilled and I headed, bleary eyed, to the hotel lobby, where I spent a huge chunk of my allowances calling home. Because I was on the other side of the world, my parents were still celebrating Christmas Eve and I cried after I hung up because I wanted to be at home.
With the anniversary of my first year in sight, I was excited at the prospect of having access to staff travel and wasted no time securing a ticket for my Mum to join me on my first trip to Hong Kong. We were invited to sit on the flight deck for landing and marveled as the Boeing 747 zoomed past clothes hanging to dry from tiny balconies, hundreds of feet in the air, from the flats adjacent to the flight path.
That trip to Hong Kong was the first of many Mum accompanied me on and needless to say, it didn’t take her long to get used to travelling in a cabin situated closer to the nose of the aircraft.
Sadly, my Mum has since developed dementia but thankfully some of the memories of those trips stay with her. Sometimes when we’re looking through old photos, she surprises me when she remembers something we did, during what I now know were precious times.
My favourite trip Mum and I took together was my last one as a single girl, to Nairobi. We watched the sun rise over the Rift Valley and witnessed thousands of flamingoes at Lake Nakuru, before heading back to Nairobi for afternoon tea in a town called Karen, named for Karen Blixen, the author of Out of Africa.
A week later, I boarded a flight from LHR to BOS, as a passenger, on my way to America, to marry the guy I met on a trip, fifteen months prior.
But that’s another story.
This post was brought to you by Karen McGarr, former British Airways cabin crew. For more, visit her blog at www.karenmcgarr.com