Emirates flight attendants: What it takes to be a flight attendant

There is a scene in the film Catch Me If You Can where Leonardo DiCaprio's fakin'-it Pan Am co-pilot walks through the airport, arms linked with a flock of uniformed air stewardesses. This was common practice during the 1960s by the well-respected American airline, designed to attract envy, garner respect, and act as a sign of solidarity amongst its staff. 

Now it's Emirates, an airline who takes great pride in its image and reputation, who carry on the tradition - their air stewards and pilots proudly stride through airports together. As a long-haul provider where in-flight service is everything, Emirates is one of the few airlines in the world that still focus on that old-school glamour amongst their cabin crew.

Being a flight attendant for an airline like Emirates is a lucrative, sought-after position. Appearances would suggest it's a relatively easy job with an injection of glamour, and one that offers the advantage of being able to travel the world.  

Catherine Baird, the senior vice president for cabin crew training at Emirates says that realising the dream of becoming a flight attendant is possible and it does attract a surprising array of talent.

"I am constantly amazed and humbled by the people we have coming to join us as cabin crew at Emirates, " admits Baird. "We have lawyers, doctors, MBAs, teachers, paramedics, opera singers, artists, people from five-star hospitality backgrounds and many more. 

"Recently we had a new recruit who had just finished her PhD working with the UN. 

"Our cabin crew are indeed a very special and talented group of people."

Applicants go through the usual interview process and psychometric testing required for a job. The last recruitment drive saw 120,000 applicants, with (a massive) 4000 applicants being successful. There's lots of interest in Emirates, but there are also lots of jobs becoming available as the airline rapidly expands.

And if you're interested in applying, there's one thing that separates the successful contenders from the rest of the pack.


"Emirates watches out for those special people who genuinely like people and can go out of their way to create a great travel experience for their customers," Baird says.

Newly hired crew must make one massive step - move to Dubai where they learn pretty fast they're "not in Kansas anymore, Toto". The realisation hits pretty much the minute they wake up at Emirates quarters, it's scorching hot outside, and the view out of their window is of camels on sandhills.

The trainees are given several days to acclimatise before the seven-and-a-half-week training process begins where they are taught everything, from crew image and uniform, fitness and nutrition, evacuating planes to applying makeup flawlessly. They'll learn how to turn a tray of duty-free goods into an attractive display, and earn an international safety certificate. 

Image is now at the forefront of their existence.

"Each week when I meet our new recruits, one of the things they are most excited about is getting into our uniform – particularly, the iconic red hat," Baird says. 

If you arrive with sailor's tatts on exposed skin, you're probably going to be in a bit of hot water. You can't really dye your hair. In fact, you can't even wear it down. Don't wear make-up? This may not be the job for you.

"Cabin crew are at the forefront of the airline and the uniform identity is the direct link to Emirates' prestigious brand. They are the public face of Emirates," Baird says of the strict regulations on appearance.

"They are trained by subject matter experts in image. This starts from using the correct skin care products to a specific make-up routine. It's recommended they follow a skincare routine that helps them deal with the different hours that they work.

"They touch up their make-up throughout the flight. Eye gel helps to refresh the eyes during a long flight and can be used over make-up. Also, they apply a vitamin C mask during their bunk rest periods as it boosts the skin cells and gives the skin a healthy glow. 

But it's not all about appearance and service; it's also about that dreaded emergency situation crew might find themselves in.

"It's easy to think that the role of cabin crew is only about the visible aspects of service." Baird reiterates, "but it's also the medical, security and safety and emergency procedures. Service, however, is part of the core of our business and safety is the heart of our operation."

And the training facility at Emirates HQ is state-of-the-art. Full-motion simulators simulate emergency scenarios such as engine failures, rapid decompression and ditching on water. The crew do get to have some fun with this rather serious business.

"They have the opportunity to evacuate from the full height A380 upper deck slide, to fight real fires in our purpose-built fire trainer facility and to ditch into a very chilly pool," Baird says. "The trainers are exceptional facilitators and make the learning realistic, relevant and fun so the learning sticks," she explains of the process.

The image and uniform classes "evoke Hollywood glamour and elegance" so crew may transform during training and emerge, Eliza-Doolittle-like, as ladies and gentlemen.

Those who set their sights a little further than economy class service can undergo further training for business and first class cabins, or promotion to the onboard leadership positions. Some, however, decide that this isn't for them at all.

"We do occasionally have people who don't feel it's the right move. This doesn't happen very often and is personal to the individual."

Baird believes Emirates is a popular choice with aspiring crew because of the perks, reeling off a list of the benefits the airline provides: "the state-of-the-art aircraft, with spacious seating, generous luggage allowances, gourmet food and wine. Some aircraft also offer wi-fi, access to the world's only on-board shower spas for first class passengers and the on-board lounge, where first class and business class passengers can socialise in the air."  

"Our cabin crew also love the truly multi-cultural and cosmopolitan team. Our global recruitment drives mean the airline now employs more than 130 different nationalities, so our crew have friends all over the world."

The reality of being a trolly-dolly can be very different to what is imagined - it's not all about pouring GnTs, safety demos and glamourous layovers. Unlike a regular job, crew work with different people every trip - in fact with 20,000 cabin crew they very rarely fly with the same person. "It takes very genuine, kind and considerate individuals to bring teamwork alive," Baird says.

This is cited as one of the reasons why crew members don't stay in the air for extended periods of time.

Also, in the past airlines such as Emirates and Qatar Airways have had to defend their policies on pregnancy and marriage for cabin crew.

Qatar Airways' contract forbids any member of the cabin crew, the vast majority of whom are female, from marrying during the first five years of their employment with the firm. This is because Qatar's local regulations prevent pregnant cabin crew from flying and the company did not have many ground jobs available for them, pregnant women must often leave.

Cabin crew across the world may not work on board planes once pregnant due to health concerns, although some countries allow them to work for up to three months into the pregnancy.

Most airlines then find them work on the ground or put them on maternity leave. In Europe, pregnant women are protected from being fired or made redundant.

Emirates said it has a policy whereby female cabin crew that become pregnant in the first three years have to leave.

"If you are hired by Emirates as a cabin crew, during the first three years we expect from you to fly," chief commercial officer Thierry Antinori said.

However, Baird insists that the pros outweigh the cons, particularly when you work for a company such as Emirates. 

"On our routes, in a month you could visit MOMA in New York, see Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro, walk the Great Wall, visit the elephant orphanage in India, go shopping in Paris or sip a café latte in my hometown of Melbourne. They live, work and meet with people from across the world and become true global citizens."

Take a look inside Emirates' flight attendant training school in the gallery above.

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