Thursday, June 25, 2009

air emergency

A warning that this post is a bit morbid, but I can't stop thinking about it. I'm talking about flight 447 'disappearing' between Brazil and Paris. It also doesn't help that I was watching the National Geographic show Air Emergency.

Where the problem begins is that for whatever reason, I always seem to make the world's problems my own. I dwell on them, I over think them, and I'm often told that I'm a bit too compassionate. I still don't think that's possible.

Plane wrecks are very controversial to discuss and they make people very uneasy, even despite the very low percentages of their actual occurrence. According to statistics there's a 1:5 chance of dying from heart disease, a 1:100 chance of dying in a car accident, and a 1:20,000 chance of dying in a plane wreck. (Numbers always seem to fluctuate from year-to-year according to who is analyzing things, and from where, but even so, the odds are pretty huge.) Of course the closer you look the more correlations you can find, as Stefan says, 'if you are massaging the numbers'.

Tomorrow I will be flying back to Munich alone. I'm truly not a nervous flyer - if anything I go into things thinking 'whatever happens, happens'. I have such a happy life and of course I want to continue living it, but I am recently reminded just how much is out of my hands, which is why I go with the laid back 'whatever happens, happens' approach.

In 2003, I was in an emergency landing. It sounds much more dramatic than it was, but I was traveling alone and it was my first trip to Europe. Our plane was losing gasoline over the Atlantic Ocean and then we were told we'd be turning around and heading to Amsterdam for the night. The pilot had to dump an insane amount of gasoline to get down to landing weight and we could see it being dumped from the wings. Many of the passengers began talking and trying to comfort each other. I still remember the woman next to me telling me about her animal skull collection. Seriously bizarre. Once we arrived it was mentioned we may use the same plane to depart later that night, which people were adamantly opposed to. Several of the flight attendants were really not that great at staying calm, even despite their training. That always struck me as odd.

After graduating college I decided that I would considering becoming a flight attendant myself, especially if it meant being able to visit Stefan more frequently or being able to have him meet me in far away locales. Another perk was up to 90% off fares and instant upgrades when available. That was pretty convincing.

I saw an ad in the newspaper and I went to the interviews. After sailing past the others I was chosen from about 100 people for training. Before I knew it I had an inside look at the flight industry. There was a lot of interesting information - including each and every flight attendant must carry a small confidential book with information regarding every procedure, even down to how you should handle 'VIP' customers. Your book needs to be updated at all times and the pages are not to be simply stuck in, but they are to be filed properly and you may be periodically checked or fined if it is not up to date.

The most interesting topic discussed was also the most important - safety. I was incredibly shocked to see some of the images, like the one in this article that say it's safest to pick a seat towards the back of the plane and on an aisle. (I also check seatguru for more information on specific airlines and types of planes.)

Some of my Mom's words of wisdom were reiterated - like wearing closed toe shoes and being aware of where the exits are before something happens. Then there were other things that I learned in training. For example, it's best to actually count the seats that it takes to get to an exit, because in a smoked filled plane you may not be able to see. Or if someone gets stuck in one of the lavatories you can help them escape by flipping a panel and opening the door.

When I was in London this year I was super excited to find 'Outliers: The Story of Success' the newest Malcolm Gladwell book, on sale. I promptly bought it and read through it in about 2 days. I highly suggest reading all of his books. They give you so much to ponder. In the latest there were a number of intriguing topics, including one about Harlan, Kentucky, where I helped build a house one summer in high school, and the most fascinating was chapter number 7 - The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes.

It suggests 7 human errors happen before a catastrophe and most often they are errors in communication. Considering English is the language of the air traffic control, it's often a second language for many pilots. Even in using English as a common language, there are small nuances that aren't always picked up on between cultures and there are major differences in how people challenging authority figures and how it is done.

So why didn't I go through with becoming a flight attendant?

There were the sorority like aspects of getting sized up each and every day. Our outfits had to be very precise. We were required to wear a black belt with pants and jewelry was permitted, but there was a limit to number of earrings and accessories. There were even regulation bags and purses, which we would be required to carry.

I quickly learned I was the only one to have graduated college and one of few that had a passport prior to training, which was another requirement. We were holed up in a hotel, close to the airport, and there really wasn't anything for us to do besides learn the material and get to know our 'flight class', which sounds easy enough.

We had a driver who would take us to the grocery at a designated time and he told us, flat out, that most of us wouldn't stick with this lifestyle for an entire year. I still remember going to a dinner with the other ladies one night with a young woman who had been working as a flight attendant for a couple years. She promptly told us how as soon as we were in the union we could carry whatever purse we wanted and how she loved using beauty appointments as a tax deduction. She also said her father helped to support her, because the pay was that bad.

Many of the women had work large carriers and after 9-11 when they had been downsized. Finally things were picking up and they could go back to the jobs they once enjoyed. One woman spoke of her ex-husband, who was coincidentally German, and how she didn't get anything in the divorce. Another women spoke about her children, who she never saw. It made me wonder what the point was.

The class was divided up into seniority according to who was the oldest and who had the most experience. The women who had been flight attendants said that's why so many of the international flight attendants are older women - they keep their jobs for eons, because they finally get paid decent money and the hours are more manageable. Speaking additional languages also helps.

Slowly things for me began to unravel. I would have to live in one of 4 cities, and although I could designate which I found most desirable the chances of needing to move were very high, despite the pay not being equal. Everyone who was more senior would have their choice fulfilled first. Typically people end up in what they call a 'crash pad', which are often in hotels or sometimes a shared apartment. The thought of having tons of random people coming and going really wasn't appealing.

There is a limit to how many hours you can work each month due to constantly being in cabin pressure, but often times you'd have to be on-call, so you had to be no further than one hour away with your bag packed and ready to go. There was an upfront investment for uniforms and the required luggage and handbags. We were told how the polyester dresses were the most effortless, because you could wash them in the hotel sink and it would be dry by morning.

Being on the road, or in the skies I should say, sounds exciting. The longer training went on the more I saw what kind of characters I would be interacting with and staying in random hotels with around the US. Everyone talked about their promiscuous lifestyles and pilot boyfriends or the womanizing men they would encounter. Everything lost it's appeal. The thought of being holed up with these people was my breaking point. I prefer to stay on the tourist side of things - don't they say 'keep your work life and your home life separate'? Maybe that's just an adage that I've picked up from being in Germany too long.


Reannon said...

That's interesting that you were almost a flight attendant. My mom used to be a flight attendant and much of what you've said were her complaints about the job as well. She said that it was horrible after 9/11 because they cut back all of the flights which meant that the flight attendants rarely had layovers (which was really the best part of the job). So she'd often fly all the way to London, stay an hour and then turn around and fly all the way back.

The other bad part was the pay. They only really got paid for the time they were in the air. So for all of the hours they spent preparing for the flight, borading, deplaning or sitting in an airport, they were only paid like, a couple of bucks an hour or something. Harldy enough to live off of.

Now she works in HR and loves it. She still gets the flight benefits but without all the hassle and the bad pay.

I'm actually applying for work as an airline customer service / ramp agent. It's still a hard job (dealing with stressed out customers who've missed their flights) and the pay sucks...but at least the hours are better and you don't have to move around!

Emily said...

I'm sure your Mom had a great time at the beginning - back when it still had some glamour to it. I don't know how I forgot to mention you don't get paid until you pull away from the gate. It was one thing after the next.

It sounds like she has the best of both worlds now! I think you'd make a great customer service agent, because you seem calm and logical. I can only imagine the characters you'd encounter, but I think that even seems more fun than being holed up with them in random hotels. I can't wait to hear how that goes for you!

JoernandAllison said...

I didn't know this about you Emily! Although I can absolutely picture you doing this :)
It is definately no life for someone with a family. And no, spending lots of time with people whose lives are so very different from your own isn't always the most exciting thing either (this is why I rarely hung out with the young military wives.) Sometimes, I think it would be interesting to work at an airport, you definately meet your fair share of characters. But, a flight attendant doesn't seem like the greatest thing. Maybe some time ago, when flying was glamarous, and people still dressed up to fly, but now, passangers are cattle, and the attendants have to clean up after the cattle.
Glad you made it back safely!

Emily said...

I also still think working at an airport would be nice - especially having the perks without having to get serious varicose veins and staying with random people.

Maybe if we live closer to an airport at some point I'll consider it.

Lane said...

This is so interesting! I can't wait to hear more when we finally meet up!

Emily said...

I can't wait to meet up with you! I'm looking forward to hearing where your next home will be.