A flight attendant’s roles are many, but minimizing risk is foremost
Everyone is confronted by hazards every day — in their commute to work, the food they consume, the tools they employ and, in some places, the very air they breathe.
Hazards form the foundation of risk management. In order to reduce risk to a level as low as reasonably practicable, potential hazards must be identified and then reported, discussed, analyzed and, ultimately, mitigated. These fundamentals can be applied to almost all human activity, and that most assuredly includes managing the business within a business aircraft cabin.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) defines the term “hazard” as a “condition or object with the potential of causing injuries to personnel, damage to equipment or structures, loss of material or reduction of ability to perform a prescribed function.”
Penny Stockdale, manager of cabin services for Jet Aviation, says her company’s Safety Management System (SMS) is so inclusive that questions about risk aversion and safety are part of the interview process for potential flight attendants.
“Our indoctrination process covers how to fill out a hazard report and how to submit it,” she explains. In addition, she notes, “We’ve included a card in the employee identification badge packet that reminds each employee what to do if a hazard is discovered, how to report it, and the hotline number to call if a computer is not available.”
Pat Cunningham, director of aviation at PepsiCo Inc., began his business aviation career as a maintenance technician. Early on, he was a flight technician on board company aircraft to provide maintenance support as well as cabin service.
He recalls one unusual hazard identified and mitigated: “During inclement weather we make it a practice at home base to position the nose of a returning aircraft into the hangar just past the main entrance door, allowing passengers to deplane without getting wet. Several arrivals into this practice, one of our captains descended the airstair door and lost his footing on the hangar floor. A wet spot forming just beyond the door when it lowered caused the slip. We subsequently instituted a policy that no one may descend the airstair door until a technician has placed a rubberized mat on the hangar floor in front of the stairs.”
Another hazard discovered and rectified involved the flight technicians, a role once served by Cunningham. “Our flight techs would fly a trip and due to a discrepancy arising, work hours past the arrival in order to have the aircraft ready to fly the next day,” he recalls. “It was noted that fatigue was becoming an issue with our flight technicians and we limited the requirement, especially upon return to home base, for their contribution to post-flight maintenance.” Today, PepsiCo’s flight technicians fall under the same fatigue management guidelines as applies to its pilots.
People are the No. 1 source of hazard identification during the normal conduct of work. Two examples of systemic, procedural hazards that could negatively impact passengers in flight: The hangar ice machine does not have a schedule for periodic cleaning and the ice scoop is typically stowed on top of the ice when not in use; and catering ordered at an intermediate stopover is delivered to the aircraft by the FBO’s lavatory service cart driver.
While NTSB reports abound with cockpit crew errors, there’s plenty that can go wrong in that comfortable, well-appointed and welcoming cabin in back. And that’s why there’s a crewmember assigned to oversee activity there. The primary role of a flight attendant is to provide aid to any passenger in distress, and, if necessary, manage the passengers’ evacuation from the aircraft in an emergency.
Beyond that, hazards abound within the confines of a business aircraft cabin. Potential issues might lead to a spill, slip, trip, burn, bump, tear, mark in a side panel or overhead, pinched finger incurred when trying to incorrectly deploy a tray table or recline a chair, or incorrect use of emergency equipment when needed.
Susan Friedenberg, a veteran contract flight attendant and trainer, advises, “Pilots use checklists, so should we.”
One of those lists should include cold weather problems. Notes Friedenberg, “In many older aircraft, the water system must be purged prior to securing the aircraft overnight. Flight attendants should have a checklist to remind them to close the faucet controls following a purge in order to prevent inadvertent overflows during servicing in preparation for the next departure.”
Such checklist items not only recognize potential hazards but are often the byproduct of hard experience.
Experience is certainly helpful when managing different equipment and procedures within the cabins of various large business jets, and that can be a particular challenge for contract flight attendants working an aircraft for the first time. I well remember an incident aboard a colleague’s Gulfstream IV when a veteran contract flight attendant placed several tinfoil containers into the galley’s high-temp oven just before takeoff. The container lids had paper on top upon which the caterer could note the contents within. Unfortunately, the oven’s high temperature caused the exposed paper to burn and the Gulfstream pilots had to execute an emergency return shortly after takeoff due to smoke in the cabin.
Checklist item: Remove paper from food containers before heating. (Friedenberg obviates the problem by demanding caterers supply both a paper and a foil lid for each container.)
Louisa Fisher, cabin safety program manager at FlightSafety International’s Savannah Learning Center, says that even though she’s been conducting cabin safety instruction for 17 years, “I learn something about hazards and risk during each class.”
“It’s been wonderful to observe and participate in the growth of crew resource management as it relates to the entire flight crew,” she adds, noting, “Flight attendant participation in hazard identification and situational awareness is what safety is all about.” And she observes that “Interaction and communication [among all crewmembers] allow a ‘whole team’ concept to better serve the needs and the safety of our passengers.”
She reports training some 1,700 individuals every year, including a large number of pilots who attend FlightSafety’s one-day course in cabin emergency procedures. She notes that the overall instruction “is continually augmented to include fascinating insights from previous attendees, real-life experiences relating to cabin safety.”
Elaine Lapotosky, director of operations at Jet Professionals and chair of the NBAA Flight Attendant Committee, notes that her company has partnered with FlightSafety to provide flight attendant training at a discounted rate and that independent cabin crewmembers working through Jet Professionals can cover that expense via deductions from their wages.
Once a hazard has been identified and reported, the process within the flight department’s SMS comes into play. This process should allow everyone within the organization to participate.
However, a contract flight attendant may be reluctant to report a hazard for fear of being deemed a critic of the flight operation and its permanent employees and not being hired again. However, since cabin hazards, especially those encountered in flight with passengers aboard, are typically beyond the purview of the pilots up front, the reluctance to report seems unjustified.
Hazards involving food and potable water on and off an aircraft are many and varied. The International Standard for Business Aircraft Handling (IS-BAH), Amendment 2, Section 7.4, “Food Hygiene and Storage of Consumables,” addresses the subject — one that should be foremost on the minds of flight attendants and pilots when ordering, transporting and placing consumables on board a business aircraft:
- 7.4.1: Caterers should be properly licensed, insured and demonstrate compliance with appropriate food regulations.
- 7.4.2: FBOs must maintain and manage procedures utilized in the sourcing and handling of potable water and ice.
- 7.4.3: Refrigeration of catering/food available for placement on an aircraft must be stored separately from food items that have been offloaded from other aircraft.
- 7.4.4: The FBO must have a formal procedure for proper cleaning, storage and handling of dishes, silverware and food containers.
Pat Bennett, a highly experienced flight attendant based in Seattle, says that during a typical year she might serve aboard five or six different types of business jets with various sized cabins and whose emergency equipment, ovens, entertainment systems and storage areas are dissimilar.
“The only way I have found to keep it all straight,” she says, “is to catalogue each aircraft and make detailed notations.”
Accurate notations and records seem to be a theme with cabin crewmembers. After all, they can provide guidance and caution when such resources are otherwise unavailable. For, as Friedenberg notes, “When you work a business aircraft, you are essentially alone. The flight crews are great, but they have their responsibilities and you have yours.”
Again, the primary role of a flight attendant is to provide passengers with a safe and secure environment. To do that requires vigilance, competence, systems knowledge and proven ability. In a word: professionalism. And if all that can be accompanied with a warm welcome and a smile, it’s likely to be a good trip.