Flight attendants conference

Aviation International News » September 2008
August 29, 2008, 12:50 PM

The growth of business aviation in the Middle East and Asia has prompted many segments of the industry to change and expand their focus. The shift was evident at the 13th annual NBAA Flight Attendants Conference, held July 26 to 28 in Tucson, Ariz., which highlighted the role of the flight attendant in a global setting.

Steve Brown, senior vice president of operations for NBAA, opened the conference with comments about the competition between business aviation and the airlines. “[The airlines] face seismic challenges,” he said, noting the recent increase in fuel costs and the impact of 9/11. “As the carriers face these stresses, we have been able to grow and become a viable alternative. Our members buy millions of commercial tickets per year, but they know when it’s more productive to travel via business aviation.”

Brown attributed the problems within the commercial sector to the industry’s business and management practices. “Professionalism had deteriorated in the airline workplace,” he said. “When employees don’t have professionalism, it diminishes the value of the product and the experience of the customer.” Business aviation, he said, has maintained its professionalism. “We have a commitment to quality and professi-
onalism. Everything you do to support that business model will continue to add to our growth, prosperity and success.”

Challenges in a Global Economy

Fatigue is one of the most critical issues for flight crews, especially those who travel between time zones, according to Dr. Mark Rosekind, president and chief scientist of Alertness Solutions, a scientific consulting firm that studies the effects of fatigue and offers strategies to improve safety and productivity in the workplace. “The FAA can give you the time off, but it can’t control how much sleep you get,” he commented.
Some of the worst disasters in recent history, including the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, have been attributed to fatigue, he said. “I don’t care who you are or what you do; you need to get sleep to do your job,” he said. “Our whole society is paying for this, and it isn’t just about safety. It’s about staying alive.”

Disturbed sleep and accumulated sleep debt impairs and degrades every aspect of a person’s life, he said. Memory degrades by 20 percent, reaction time slows by 25 percent, judgment and decision-making skills decrease by 50 percent and attention lapses increase by almost 500 percent. “If you don’t get enough sleep on Sunday, half the decisions you make on Monday will be bad,” Rosekind said. “And you don’t get to choose which ones [will be bad].”

Fatigue also affects mood, which in turn will affect a flight attendant’s performance on the job. “Does mood have an effect on whether you do the job right? Absolutely,” he said. “Mood has a huge effect on job performance, but it goes down the toilet when you’re tired. It’s one of the classic symptoms of fatigue.”

The average person needs about eight hours of sleep but sleeps approximately 6.5 hours, Rosekind said. “Sleep is a vital physiological need. After two to three months, animals die from sleep loss.” He added, however, that sleep loss does not have to be made up on an hour-by-hour basis. “You recover by sleeping deeper. Two consecutive nights of deep sleep can make up for sleep debt,” he said.

Although there is no “magic bullet” for avoiding fatigue, there are a number of strategies to follow, he said. In addition to keeping a regular bedtime, it is also important to adhere to a regular pre-sleep routine and avoid using a laptop or watching television while in bed. He also suggested getting out of bed if you find yourself tossing and turning after 30 minutes. “Struggling to sleep will only make it worse,” he said.

He also suggested taking short naps throughout the day, as long as the naps are less than 45 minutes. “Naps are powerful because they reverse the effects of a lack of sleep,” he explained. Naps should not be taken too close to bedtime, he cautioned, and a person should allow 15 minutes to fully wake up. He also said to avoid caffeine products late in the day. “It takes 15 to 30 minutes to take effect, but the effects can last two to four hours.”

Above all, he said that people should try to get eight hours of sleep per day, even if the sleep is split into two sessions. “If you are sleep deprived your brain will shut down to get the sleep it needs, even if you’re in a life-threatening situation,” he concluded. (See article on sleep apnea, page 62.)

Health is another topic of concern for flight attendants, who often have direct contact with sick passengers, according to Dr. Petra Illig, a CDC quarantine medical officer. Airborne diseases, such as measles, chickenpox and influenza, cause the most concern for CDC officials because they spread so easily. “These viruses travel on air currents, and they are a little bit scarier than other types,” Illig said. “Twenty to 30 percent of influenza patients do not have symptoms.”

Some viruses, such as tuberculosis, cause panic but are actually hard to transmit. “There is a lot of fear and misconception about tuberculosis,” she said. “But it is considered extremely low risk. You would have to be in really close contact for more than eight hours with an infected person to catch it.”

Other illnesses, such as the common cold and other diseases that are spread by droplet transmission, shouldn’t cause too much concern, Illig said. “There is nothing inherent about the confines of an airplane interior that is going to spread the disease,” she said, adding that the droplets do not travel more than three to six feet. “Air filters on airplanes are similar to the ones used in hospital operating rooms and new air is recycled 30 times an hour. It’s cleaner than the air in most public buildings.”

In cases where a passenger needs medical attention, a flight attendant’s job is to identify the sick passenger, notify the pilots so they can take appropriate action, take care of the needs of the sick passenger and those around him and notify the appropriate authorities upon landing. “Separate the sick passenger by a few feet if possible, and provide them with tissues and a plastic bag,” Illig said.

The pilots are required to report the illness, and if necessary, CDC officials will board the airplane once it lands. “Our job is to determine if there is a public health threat and to suggest care or immediate transfer to a hospital. If there is a problem, we will also distribute health alert notices to the other passengers,” she explained.

Illig said the CDC might also quarantine the sick passenger and those around him if necessary. A person exhibiting signs of cholera, diphtheria, tuberculosis, plague, smallpox, yellow fever, viral hemorrhagic fevers, SARS and influenza can warrant quarantine. “We can forcefully take the sick person into a hospital and isolate them,” she said.

To reduce the risk of catching an illness, Illig advises that flight attendants use gloves when serving passengers, wash their hands thoroughly before and after serving food and drinks and use alcohol-based rubs to kill germs. She admitted, however, that most companies discourage the use of gloves because of the fear that passengers will assume the flight attendant is sick. “It’s important to keep things clean, and I personally like to see flight attendants use gloves,” she said.

Cultural Awareness

In addition to health concerns, flight attendants will also encounter cultural differences in many of the countries they travel to. It is important to be aware
of these differences, especially when serving customers on board the airplane.

In Asia, for example, it is considered extremely offensive to use white flowers–especially carnations–as a decoration. “White flowers, as beautiful as they are, mean death,” according to Monalisa Shaheen, director of aviation services network for Rudy’s Inflight Catering. “A passenger from Asia will get off your airplane if you display white flowers,” she explained.

If a flight attendant is preparing food for a Chinese or Japanese customer, chopsticks should never be stuck in the food as a decorative touch. “That signifies death,” said Amanda Kraft, of Tastefully Yours Catering.

It is also considered rude not to cut up fish or chicken into bite-size pieces so the customers can use their chopsticks to eat. “Let the customers see the gorgeous presentation, then return to the kitchen and cut it in small pieces,” advised Paula Kraft, owner of Tastefully Yours.

“And keep the fish in the position you serve it. Never let the fish get flipped over. That means shipwreck,” she explained.

If serving a customer from the Middle East, it is customary to serve coffee first, followed by an assortment of dates and mixed nuts. Pork products and decorations that would soil a passenger’s clothing, such as flowers with pollen, are considered offensive. In addition, Shaheen said it is customary to serve men first, followed by women and children after the men have finished their meals. She added that DVDs with sexual content and alcohol should be removed from the airplane before landing in the Middle East. “Those items will be confiscated,” she said.

When the customers are from India, it is important to serve vegetarian dishes, said Paula Kraft. “You don’t want to serve the food with a leather placemat,” she added. “That would be offensive. And be cautious of leather luggage and handbags. Cows are sacred.” It is also customary for an Indian passenger to eat food with bread rather than silverware. “Young people use silverware and are becoming more Western, but the tradition is to eat with naan bread.” And as in China, white flowers signify death. “The brighter and more festive the color, the better,” Kraft said.

Regulations and Security

“We often concentrate so much on the service side of the business, we forget to address the regulatory side of the business,” said Amy Nelson, a former TAG Aviation flight attendant who now works for Sentient Flight Group. “We don’t pay attention to what’s going on in the news, but we need to know what’s going on. We need to stay ‘in the know.’”

The importance of understanding the difference between Part 91, 91K and 135 flights is critical in light of recent changes to the A008 OpSpec, which regulates the operational control of an aircraft, Nelson said. “Make sure you know who has operational control of the flight, because the FAA will ask you. You’re accountable for that aircraft. Your name is on the dotted line.”

Caryl Knapp, a Bombardier Flexjet flight attendant, said it is also important to understand the differences between Part 91, 91K and 135 flights because of the nature of a corporate flight attendant’s job. “A flight attendant has to move among all three categories, and she has to know what she’s doing at all times,” Knapp said. “You need to know what type of flight you’re on.”

It’s also important for a flight attendant to know her exact responsibilities, Knapp said. “Before you get on an aircraft, know your responsibilities. Sit down and have a safety briefing with the crew.”

Another issue of concern is that of aircraft safety and security, according to Doug Carr, NBAA vice president of safety and regulation. “Security is an important topic, but there are still unknowns out there,” he said. “The data is difficult to get.” A flight attendant can help the industry by reporting incidents when they occur, he said. “If nobody reports it, nobody knows about it,” Carr said, urging flight attendants to “help us keep track of what’s going on in the industry.”

Carr also provided tips to increase the level of aircraft security and advised attendants to review NBAA’s list of security best practices. “Security is not rocket science,” he said. “It’s common sense.” Checking passenger backgrounds, examining baggage and issuing company ID badges are all ways to make sure the airport and aircraft are secure, he said. Airports should also install good lighting around hangars and aircraft and should keep hangars locked when not in use, he added. “These are all common-sense approaches to the things every airport should be doing,” he said.

Carr stressed that if the industry doesn’t address these issues now, the government will. “Right now, most of these measures are voluntary,” he said. “If you don’t participate, there’s no harm. But if something happens, the TSA will react.”   

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