British Airways cabin-crew training prepares you for much more than being a 'trolley dolly'.
The familiar trill of the in-flight safety announcement sounds. The engines roar into action. We're about to take off.
But smoke starts to billow around and shouts zigzag across the cabin: "This is an emergency! Brace, brace, brace!" Then: "Unfasten your seat belts and come this way."
I do as I'm told.
Except this is not a real plane crash, the smoke isn't toxic and rather than leaping on to plane wreckage I emerge from a flight simulator into a hangar on the perimetre of Heathrow. There are staircases running Escher-style between floors, and simulators, among them of a Boeing 737 and an Airbus A380. Pilot decks, business-class seat mock-ups and stand-alone doors – for practising emergency evacuation procedures – glide in among them. Along one wall sit two of the inflatable slides you hope you never have to use.
I'm at Cranebank, the British Airways training hub, to learn how to be an air hostess, strictly as press, although real trainees here go from man or woman on the street to fully fledged cabin crew in six weeks. I'm not working alongside them today, but some huddle in groups among the equipment. They spend a full day on fire training, partake in pool sessions to mimic emergency landings on water and have three days' instruction on how to treat Club World (business-class) passengers.
Caroline Black, a British Airways training executive for six years, explains that, in an emergency, cabin crew need to pretend their parents are on board, 25 rows away, and they need to be able to hear you. If you aren't bellowing, and your voice doesn't convey the message "Follow my word, now", it's not assertive enough.
The supposedly glamorous world of the air hostess begins in this drab complex, reminiscent of a Sixties school block. But from a dirty glass walkway emerges a clan of impeccably attired cabin crew. There are caps, epaulettes and luminescent silver stripes for male pilots, and wasp-waisted jackets and prim hats for women.
Wearing these suits by the fashion designer Julien Macdonald, staff are expected to be immaculately attired. The Uniform Standards manual requires women to wear lipstick and blusher "as a minimum". Hair must be secured in an approved list of styles and, if in a French pl ait, "the ends must not exceed 1.5in/3cm".
A part from learning how to save someone's life, learning how to be the perfect air hostess is going to take some grooming.
In recent years, BA has faced significant competition from low-cost carriers. London based EasyJet, in particular, has moved in on BA's territory by focusing on customer service and business passengers. While BA's motto is "To fly. To serve", there are sheepish looks – but no response beyond this – when I mention to training staff that on my last flight with the national carrier (in cattle class), the cabin crew found even a smile difficult. But it's a message BA is keen to push in UK's BBC Two documentary, A Very British Airline, which follows some of BA's 40,000 staff as they try to comply with the airline's exacting standards.
The work is demanding: staff may be faced with anything from vomiting, drunk passengers and women in labour to engine failure. T he average annual "total reward package" for a new entrant is about £21,000 (A$38,071). Yet there is a willing supply. In 2013, BA had 14,000 applications for 800 cabin-crew places. Overall, there is a 60:40 ratio of women to men, and while some applicants are looking for their first jobs, others have extensive hospitality experience.
Back in the hangar, we proceed to the emergency slides. Trainees need to get used to how to deploy them – and more importantly, how not to – pretty quickly. "They are lethal weapons if not used properly," explains James Austin, a training executive in a pink tie, shiny suit and even shinier shoes.
From my experience, I'm happy to stamp out any idea that the air hostess is the preening "trolley dolly", whose only purpose is to top up the wine in first and dish out the hot towels. But the glory days of aviation, when stories of long stopovers abounded, might not be as dead as we think.
When we bump into a real air hostess in the ladies', she says that a flight to South Africa, for example, allows a night or two in the other hemisphere. "There's quite a lot of socialising, to be honest," she says, as she smoothes on her lipstick, a full face of make‑up somehow incongruous against her mufti.
But what about passengers struck by air rage? I raise my eyebrows at James's claims that in years of cabin-crew service he never dealt with a really problematic customer. Becky Wadsworth, an air hostess for the national carrier since 1994, currently on long-haul routes, is a little more open: "Thankfully it doesn't happen too often. I've never had to use handcuffs, but I have dealt with some very angry and drunken passengers. Thankfully, calming them has been enough and we have not had to use them."
Passengers who have obviously had too much to drink will be refused top-ups, and, Becky adds: "We make sure everyone is aware of the situation so that they are not mistakenly given any more alcohol."
The most challenging part of her job, she says, is the jet lag: "In 20 years, I've never found the magic cure." And do the crew have to eat the food? Becky says that they are provided with staff dishes, but can, and do, eat meals left unused after the passenger service.
The "hostess" part of the job comes into its own in Club World. Nicola Hoile, a customer services training manager, says BA invests so heavily in equipping trainees on the etiquette of business class because, by cabin seats sold, it represents the biggest percentage of revenue.
So, how to be an air hostess in Club World: pass the training on the knowledge of food products such as Loch Fyne salmon (is it wild?); Camembert (how is it aged?); and the composition of a velouté. Know your Fat Duck from your Alain Ducasse and, with four wines and champagne on board, make sure that you can conduct intelligent conversation about appellations such as Pouilly-Fuissé. There is also only ever one corkscrew on board a plane, and it is kept locked away, says Nicola. If a passenger asks a question about something on that day's menu, and you don't know, you'll be in trouble…
I've had only a glimpse of BA's extensive training programme and the path to getting one's "wings" as an air hostess. The long and the short of living up to the exacting standards? Shout, very loudly, and make small talk about cheese.
The Telegraph, London