Up, Up and Away
By Ali Hull
Simon Marton spent years as a steward, flying thousands of miles. We find out what life was really like 30,000 miles in the air.
When did you start working for the airline?
I joined the airline industry nearly twenty-five years ago – which instantly makes me feel old. In late 1995, having worked a summer season on the Greek island of Santorini, I had gained a new inner confidence and decided it was time to attempt something new, which combined my childhood love of aircraft and travel with my natural people skills. I felt it was time for reinvention. The thought of working on and around airliners created the magic for me, rather than anything else, and being up in the skies appealed to my sense of adventure. I didn’t dress particularly smartly as a rule, nor did I wear make-up, but I really wanted a change for the better, to improve myself in some way and to go for a job which I thought might fit me, regardless of the intense competition.
And you were successful…
Within five or six months of starting the application ball rolling, I succeeded in gaining my first six-month temporary contract with a charter airline at Gatwick (LGW). I was soon to find out it was an industry which captivates so many on the inside that it is hard for it to leave your blood. The sight of a full crew walking through an airport, dressed in immaculate uniforms, neck scarves, swept up hair, pilots’ caps, wings and rings on sleeves can lead one to believe it is an industry packed full of glamour. The idea that a plane could take you away to a hot destination, where you keep busy sipping cocktails beside a swimming pool is an appealing one, with a little bit of truth mixed into the Mojito.
What was reality like?
I spent most of my airborne days on charter flights, operating at unearthly hours, before discovering the slightly less disruptive scheduled airline flying experience. I have done more than my fair share of short hops, including European and domestic routes, with ‘doubles’ being the norm– i.e. two ‘there and backs’ a day. Short haul flights can resemble a bus service, but equally so can long haul, which I also did more recently in 2011-12. There was a phrase bandied about by some, which described the job of cabin crew as ‘a lifestyle’. I disagreed: it’s a job, albeit a slightly unusual one. The reason I mention this is to deflate some of the unnecessary mystery about ‘glamour’ where there isn’t any.
What are the downsides?
It can be a very lonely job, and very often the last thing you want to see is another hotel or layover somewhere, when all you really want to do is to be home with your loved ones. The nature of the job is that you are beholden to your employer and your roster, which is only published a couple of weeks before the next month. There isn’t any real pattern to a roster, although you can request certain types of duty or specific days off, with no guarantee of achieving them. I was fortunate to spend every Christmas Day with my family, while working in the industry. Maybe God felt sorry for me and wrote the rosters for me?
What specific issues were passengers facing?
Stresses came in many forms for those who travelled on my flights. Passengers (pax) could come on board with their own worries, suffering from a recent bereavement, or the stress of nearly missing the flight. There would be parents trying to control young children with wills of their own, silent deportees wondering what they were to return to, those afraid of flying ... and whole plane-loads of delayed pax wanting to vent their anger on me and my colleagues.
How did you cope?
The sort of techniques I employed were usually those of empathy primarily, alongside listening at eye-level, by crouching down next to a customer in their seat to get rid of any threatening posture. This is one of the ways we were trained to act in order to minimise negativity and allow a customer to become calm. Smiling at appropriate moments helps a lot, as no one likes a moody crew. This was especially helpful during turbulence, which is common. On one of my first flights, we were into the descent approaching Rome Fiumcino through a thunderstorm, when without warning a bolt of lightning shot above my head through the entire cabin length of the Lockheed Tristar we were on. Pax were obviously in a state of worry and high anxiety, but my senior, Tina, mouthed to me to ‘Keep smiling, Simon!’ I did, and gradually the mood lightened as we checked seatbelts through the forward cabin. Smiling – so simple, yet so effective.
What if someone dies?
I was called to a crew hotel near Heathrow airport. I was told that the reason why a male manager was needed was because it could have been a fight, a rape or even a death, but it would never be the latter. It was of course a death. A crew member had passed away between back to back flights and we had to organise the discreet removal of his body for an autopsy, as well as ensure that news of this did not pass onto anyone, as social media would have leaked the event ahead of the family knowing. Just like in a macabre movie, five of us occupied a cramped service lift with the zipped black body bag lying on a low trolley at our feet. It was only a few days later that it hit me, when I saw the deceased’s badly laser-copied image on the obituaries board: this person had a face, a name and a life. I kept this to myself in the crew room as I briefed my smiling crew, none of whom would ever have known what I had been privy to.
How safe is flying?
With over 2,000 flight sectors under my belt, a lot of turbulence, a near-miss over Manchester, cabin systems failures returning from Rio and an urn of near-boiling water accidentally tipped over my head in Luxembourg, I can safely say that flying is fairly safe owing to the intensity of training that my pilot colleagues, ground staff and cabin crew colleagues undergo. We all report for periodic refresher training and exams, are occasionally audited for compliance by safety organisations, and are up to speed with mandatory updates, so the fare-paying public is in good hands.
What about the dangers brought on board by the passengers?
Boozy hens and wild stags meant raised voices, singing, disturbance, bravado and headaches for crew members. You just needed to employ the skills of assertiveness and diplomacy. As a guy, generally, I had little hassle, whereas the girls had more. I was to regret giving carte blanche to two guys I had got chatting to in the forward economy section of the plane, to help themselves to drinks from the Club World Larder en route to Las Vegas. It turned out that while I was asleep on my break, they had gone for a singsong, complete with a bottle of red each, through the business class cabin. They landed with terrible hangovers, for which I was grateful. Others would drink so much that they would render themselves unserviceable, and sleep for the duration of a long-haul flight.
How much did you see in your travels?
You would be forgiven for thinking we see the world. Very often all I would see was a familiar hotel in Vienna, Dusseldorf, Prague or Amsterdam. If further away, I would experience the loneliness of being in Japan, Denver, Boston or Accra. Cabin crew on newer contracts with the national airline would usually have a minimum rest stopover, which means landing in the evening at your destination, then returning home the following evening, a night flight being the norm. Destinations that stick in my mind include Budapest during the Christmas period, when the smell of cinnamon and mulled wine would fill the cold evening air of the market place around the corner from the Intercontinental Hotel, and walking through the streets of San Diego in the warm April sun, marvelling at the giant statue of a sailor embracing his belle near the harbour side where a decommissioned aircraft carrier was docked. I bought my wife a jewelled watch for our wedding anniversary there. These were rare moments of delight, as most stopovers just felt like a quick work-break before leaving for home again.
What happened to your mental health?
My own mental wellbeing, in the most recent stint of flying, was unstable at worst. My wife didn’t want me to take on the job, but I felt I had little choice, as I had bills to pay and a family to support. While away, I would often complete assignments for my Law degree which I was attempting part-time. My commute from Bath to Heathrow (LHR) would take me two hours one way, and because the stereo wasn’t working, I would use the time to talk to God as I drove, whatever time of the day or night that might be. Other pilots and cabin crew always looked to have it all together, but I knew it was a facade. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, as I barely trusted anyone. I felt incredibly alone for much of my experience working for BA at LHR. I had a young family back home and I needed to work, but I wished I didn’t have to be so far away most of the time.
My mental health, as time wore on, was on a knife edge. I was fatigued from constant commuting and flying, unhappy inside and had a mini-depression which I kept concealed from everyone. No one would have known anything was up with me as I bottled it all up and just did the best I could, day by day. Sometimes I would lean on my door handle position, and daydream about what it might feel like to leap out of the aircraft as it rotated off the runway. Thankfully, that remained a daydream. I was sustained by prayer, my wife and my friends. It was not easy at all, but I made it through to the point where I handed in my resignation to my manager, making the leap into the unknown again…
How did your faith affect your job?
Faith in Jesus keeps me alive in all the ways that word can be used. I knew he would never let me go, and I still know this. Having been a junior crew member before becoming a senior one, I made it my intention to treat others as I would wish to be treated, so that my colleagues would feel relaxed in my company and consequently perform better in the knowledge that they wouldn't be constantly overlooked and interfered with. I was an ambassador not just for my employer, but Jesus. On flights returning to LHR, I would point out the tourist sights over London for the cabin occupants – something that kept alive the wonder of flying for me, but also many others, I was told. I was informed of a couple of people who had been deeply impressed by this as well as my use of passenger names as much as possible- at least on boarding. We were told only to do it for First, but I figured why not use it for everyone. It sometimes made people jump on disembarkation, if I had remembered their name from the beginning of the flight. As far as faith goes, I managed to share it with quite a few people over the course of my flying career. I will never know what they have decided for themselves or indeed, where they are in the world.
Why don’t airlines get their crew to slow down when they are giving out information – particularly safety information?
Sometimes it is hard to decipher the words that come through the PA from crew members. My advice to them is what I was told years ago. Let your personality come through your PAs. Maybe they should hold the interphone differently, instead of speaking so closely it’s unintelligible. Perhaps the reason for this speed of mumbled information over the PA is that these announcements are so routine to cabin crew, they are in a hurry to get them over with. Therein lies the crux: routines ensure safety, and this is what the airline industry is based on. Repetition, routines and reputation. At the time of writing, the industry is in near crisis. Flying remains in my blood, even as a distant memory.