Inside flight attendant school

Craig Platt goes behind the curtain to discover what it takes to become a member of one of the world's top cabin crews.

You've got to get the walk right. Chin up, to project confidence, but not so high as to make you look arrogant. Make eye contact with the people you pass. Take moderate steps. The slit in your dress is long, and you don't want to expose your legs as you walk. You must appear graceful and gracious. When people see you walking through an airport, they will know who you are. Remember that you're an ambassador, not just for an airline, but for an entire country.

This is what Madam Choong Lee Fong, Malaysia Airlines' cabin crew training and standards manager, drills into her students at flight attendant school. Located in a huge concrete block in Kuala Lumpur, the training centre is home to up to 600 flight attendants at a time.

Madam Choong has a reputation to uphold. Malaysia Airlines cabin crews were voted the second-best in the world in last year's respected Skytrax survey of 15 million passengers worldwide (down from first place in 2007).

Learning how to walk elegantly is just a small component of a training regime that takes in areas such as flight safety procedures, emergency response, food service, grooming and even social etiquette.

"Staff might be invited to represent the airline at a dinner or event," explains Madam Choong, "so they need to know how to sit down properly at the table."

In the grooming class, a large group of male students are busy buffing their nails. Their hands need to look good when they're serving passengers food, Madam Choong says.

Meanwhile, the women in the class are getting lessons on doing their hair and make-up. There are mirrors on every wall of the classroom, so the students can keep as close an eye on themselves as the instructors do.

The men don't get the make-up lessons, but they are taught how to care for their skin - moisturising is important, we're told, when your working environment is so dry.


From day one the students are being observed, Madam Choong says. The school staff will monitor their progress closely to ensure that, at the end of the course, they not only know all the technical information and safety procedures they require, but that they look good too.

And they do look good. But, we're told, the airline isn't looking for Miss Universe candidates, they just want people who can look graceful in the uniform. The exhaustive interview process also provides the selectors an chance to examinethe presentability of the candidates.

But attitude is more important, Madam Choong says. "Are they presentable? Respectable? Do they make you feel comfortable? Do they seem approachable?"

Interpersonal skills and public speaking training also form part of the training. Voice training is also covered - while the flight attendants might generally speak softly to passengers, they need to be able to up the amplitude if they're issuing instructions in an emergency.

As for their looks, Madam Choong tells us that the training will transform them.

It is true that there are height and weight restrictions for the cabin crew. The flight attendants have to be tall enough to access the bags in the overhead compartments, with a minimum height of 165 centimetres for women and 176 centimetres for men. Their weight must be within the healthy range determined by the standard body mass index (BMI).

Like flight attendants everywhere, there's a perception in Malaysia that working for the airline is a glamorous gig. Madam Choong brings those views crashing back to earth as quickly as possible.

"We remind them that it is not so glamorous when you are on your knees in the aisle cleaning up the vomit of a drunk and still trying to look elegant," she says.

Drunks are one of the most common problems flight attendants must deal with, and the students must go through several `role play' situations where they are forced to deal with the type of problem passengers they are likely to encounter once they start flying. Often, the scenarios are taken directly from actual incidents on flights.

The attendants are also given first aid training, which they are required to take refresher courses in on a regular basis. Training includes the delivery of babies, and in the training room we see the (somewhat amusing) plastic model of a woman's genital area, complete with plastic baby peeking out. Births on planes do happen - at the start of the year a baby was born on a Northwest Airlines flight from the Netherlands to the US. In that case a doctor was on board, sparing the crew from the task of delivery.

Aside from having to cope with tough situations, Malaysia's flight attendants face other drawbacks to - particularly the women. One trainer reveals that female cabin crew are not allowed to have children in the first five years of service (they are not allowed to work while pregnant). In addition, they face retirement at age 45 - ten years earlier than the men.

In all, the course takes months, though different courses exist for different aircraft - safety procedures and cabin layouts vary, and the training varies accordingly.

As we leave, a group of flight attendants and pilots are going through ocean landing training. They jump from a full-scale model jet into an indoor pool, fully clothed, and practice how to draw the attention of search aircraft by forming a large circle and kicking up the water. It may be a serious subject but, as the crew splash about in the water, it makes at least some parts of being a flight attendant look kind of fun.

Craig Platt is online travel editor. He travelled to Kuala Lumpur as a guest of Malaysia Airlines.