Firstly, this is a LONG report. I tried to add all the detail about some of the things we have to do every day to make the flight run smoothly. Hope someone finds it interesting!
Photo © Timothy Ward
A day in the life of an Air New Zealand flight attendant
Meep-meep-meep-meep.. Meep-meep-meep-meep.. my two alarms sound in unison and wake me from a deep sleep. I look at the clock - 2pm. Time to rise and shine, while most of the world has already been up and at work for hours,
Tonight I’ll be crewing NZ002, our flagship 747-400 service from Auckland to London via Los Angeles. As the longest single flight in the world, I won’t be going all the way, just to Los Angeles - which in itself is a 13 hour duty. Air New Zealand operates a cabin crew base in London, who will pick up our flight in LA and take it on to London.
As I’m eating my very late breakfast, I log on to Jetnet, our crew website, and check the departure time and crew list. My Inflight Service Director (ISD) tonight will be Don, who I’ve flown with before. He’s a 35 year veteran who is great to fly with, and I’m looking forward to seeing him again. The Inflight Service Coordinator (ISC) who’s the second in command is Mary, who I haven’t flown with before. Judging by her employment number she’s been around a long time as well. Since I haven’t heard her mentioned by name by other crew, she can’t be too bad! I also notice Thomas, who was in my training class, will be working alongside me in Economy Class tonight. It’ll be nice to see him again.
I also ring the Air New Zealand call centre to check how full our flights are. We have about 50 empty seats on the way up, but are nearly full on the return. After a quiet afternoon, I check the weather forecast for Los Angeles - which is pleasantly mild. I start to pack my clothes and personal effects into my Samsonite, label the crew tag with the destination and flight number using a black felt tip pen, and iron my uniform shirt and apron. I also double check my passport is packed and the US aircrew visa is still valid - while we don’t need to present our passport at most ports, US destinations are the exception, so if I don’t pack my passport I’ll be going straight back to New Zealand for tea and biscuits with management - something I definitely want to avoid!
The flight is due to depart at 2200. The company kindly provides a free shuttle service from various points around Auckland - my closest pickup point is only 2km from home, so I call the shuttle line and organize a taxi from my place to the pickup point. The taxi shows up on time at 1945, so I say my goodbyes and depart. The shuttle shows up at the pickup point more or less on time, and I find Mary, the ISC onboard from an earlier shuttle point, along with two other crew I don’t know. We make our introductions and are soon chatting about our plans for Los Angeles.
At The Airport
After an uneventful trip we’re deposited at the entrance to Auckland’s international terminal, and drop our bags off at the crew counter, where our name is crossed off. We take the lift up to the crew room and check our files. I find a letter from another crew member asking to swap my upcoming Singapore trip for her Osaka, as her partner is on my flight. I scribble a quick note saying yes and asking her to process the swap form. My file also contains an Inflight Service update, detailing some minor changes to our service on Japanese flights, which I take note of.
With my business in the crew room done, I proceed through passport control to our briefing room, which is airside. I find Don, the ISD, already present, along with Thomas and some other crew. We exchange greetings, and when everyone’s present, Don starts his briefing. He covers our passenger loads, aircraft registration, notifies us of a well-known film star travelling in Business Premiere Class, and the names and seat numbers of Star Alliance Gold and Gold Elite members travelling in Economy. The flight will be reasonably long due to strong headwinds, and we’re expecting moderate turbulence around breakfast time. Don also encourages us to work as a team, help each other, and most importantly have fun, as a happy crew means happy passengers! Don then passes around the duty sheet. Tonight I’ll be working as FA7, the Galley Leader, sitting at Door 4L.
Mary then reads and answers a couple of safety and security questions, which reminds us of the primary reason we’re onboard. She notes a recent incident in which a passenger was caught smoking onboard by an alert crew member, and details the severe reaction from the US authorities when the plane landed!
On The Plane
Briefing over, we proceed to Gate 8, where ZK-SUJ, named ‘Auckland’, is waiting for us. As we board, our names are checked off again by the gate agent and our ID cards checked. Once onboard, we stow our bags then start our safety and security check, checking all overhead lockers, under seats, toilets, etc for suspicious or unusual items and check all the emergency equipment in our area is functional. We also do a PTV check, and I notice a PTV in my cabin area is unserviceable. I call Don on the interphone and let him know, and an engineer soon boards to fix the problem.
Photo © CHRISTOPHER DARTNELL
After the checks are complete, I enter the galley and immediately start the most important task for the Galley Leader - counting the meals! As Air NZ only uses 14 crew on the 747, economy class has only one galley person, who has to coordinate meals for 3 galleys! It’s the most difficult position in Economy on busy flights, but I like it. I open each oven and count the meals, go next door, and call door 2L, where the other economy galley is. In total we have 275 meals and 280 trays. I call Don with the total and he tells me the final passenger load has increased to 277, so we’ll need extra meals. The catering staff have boarded to check everything’s in order, so I let them know our requirements and they radio for extra meals.
While I’m counting meals, the other crew are placing headphones on the seats. That task finished, they congregate in the galley and help me with all the tasks that need to be done before we take off - such as preparing the tea and coffee pots, filling the ice buckets and milk jugs, preparing a ‘seconds basket’, in which we keep supplies of things we know we’ll need during the flight - tea bags, coffee sachets, rubbish bags, etc.
Don makes a PA and lets us know the passengers are on their way. We don our jackets, remove our ID cards, and proceed to our cabin areas to welcome the passengers. I take the time to have a chat to the passengers who’ve been allocated the emergency exit seats opposite my jumpseats, and check they know how to operate the door if they need to. An elderly lady looks hot and bothered, so I crouch next to my seat, offer her a glass of water, and show her how the seat controls work.
Everyone seems to be onboard and seated, so we close the overhead lockers and gather in the galley for a drink of water. Soon we hear Don’s PA - “Flight attendants, go to your doors”. We disperse to our doors, and wait while Don gives the mandatory announcements regarding mobile phones and electronic items. “Flight attendants, check all doors closed”. I push down on my door handle firmly and check there’s nothing caught in the door seal. “Flight Attendants, arm your doors”. I move the door lever to the ‘Automatic' position, which engages the door to the slide. If anyone opens the door now, the slide will automatically deploy and inflate. The doors are now ready for flight.
Photo © NZ133
Soon the pink light above our seat lights up and the “Bing Bong” chime indicates an interphone call. We pick up and start the door confirmation. ‘5 Right, door closed and armed, equipment checked. 5 Left, door closed and armed, equipment checked’, and so on, until Don finishes the challenge by thanking us and telling us to resume our duties.
The next PA comes a few minutes later - “Flight Attendants, to your safety briefing positions please”. As the safety video plays, we stand in front of the passengers, and indicate their nearest exit when the video prompts us. After a final check that the passengers are seated with belts fastened and all baggage correctly stowed, I do a final check that all the galley ovens and stowages are closed and fastened - it would be a disaster to lose a cart full of meals on takeoff!
Don comes on the PA again - “Flight Attendants must now be seated for takeoff”. I dim the galley lights, sit on my jumpseat and fasten my belt and shoulder straps as tightly as possible - every centimetre of slack belt doubles your G-force if we stop suddenly, so I’m extremely careful about this. We swing onto the runway and, without stopping, power up and roar down the runway. At this time all flight attendants are in a heightened state of awareness - if you see our lips moving, we’re doing our ‘silent review’ - reminding ourselves of where we’re sitting, what emergency equipment we have, and what our responsibilities are in the event of an accident. I remind myself that above my jumpseat is where the emergency locator beacon is stored, and that’s what I’ll need to collect if we have an accident.
We power into the air and commence climb without incident, and NZ002 is now bound direct for Los Angeles!
Photo © David Woodall
When the seatbelt sign is switched off, Don starts the welcome onboard PA, while two of the crew distribute the US arrival documentation. I go into the galley and start the ovens - 25 minutes on medium heat. Most of the crew go up to the forward economy galley, where the special meals are cooking and the bar carts are stored, and begin setting up the bar carts. Don wanders down to my galley to check on the meals, and we chat for awhile before he disappears to the upper deck to check on progress there. The timer buzzer sounds, and I make sure the meals are hot enough by touching the base of the dish and the foil on one or two meals from each oven, then call the forward economy galley to tell them I’m about to start loading the carts. We have 25 special meals tonight, and the other crew are busy distributing them, while I pull out the meal carts.
Each Air New Zealand cart has a capacity of 42 trays, 14 on each side and 14 in the middle. We use a rather old-fashioned system in which each hot meal dish has to be taken out of the oven and loaded by hand into the trays, which is sweaty work, as it’s always a race to get things done by the time the special meals are handed out. I load the dishes into two carts, and place an extra 14 meals on top of the cart in a container for the unreachable trays in the middle of the cart. The foil-bagged bread rolls come out of the bread warming oven and are placed on top of the cart, together with tongs. Thomas heads down to my galley and takes a cart, I take the other, and we push them to the top of economy class, where the bar carts are waiting. We work with three crew on each side of the aircraft, one for the meal cart and two for the heavier bar cart. I race back to the galley to start loading the next carts, to be ready for when the first lot of carts are empty. Again, our system is rather unusual - most other airlines have four or six carts out at once, all with meals in the bottom and drinks on the top. The biggest advantage of the other system is that drinks and meals are served simultaneously - the disadvantages are that the drinks options are limited compared to having a full cart, and there’s less meals in each cart - both resulting in more frequent trips to the galley, which, with our comparatively smaller number of crew, would be messy.
I’ve finished loading the next lot of carts by the time the empty carts come back to the galley, so all I need to do is stow the empty carts and load another two carts. When the final carts are in the cabin, I give the galley a quick wipe-down and pull out the coffee and tea pots and fill them. While the crew on the bar cart go through the cabin offering seconds of red and white wine, myself and the others start with tea and coffee from the top of the cabin, then seconds of tea and coffee. Finally, the meal service is finished, and we gather in the galley for a quick breather, before I start heating the crew meals and pulling out the empty carts, donning our rubber gloves, and collecting in the trays - guaranteed to give you a sore back on a full 747! When the carts are collected in, we circulate the cabin with jugs of water and orange juice, and then Don dims the lights and the passengers settle down to watch their on demand movies, play the interactive games (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is a particular favourite amongst the crew!) or sleep. Time for the crew to eat! The appearance of a crew member from the upper deck with some leftover business class food is particularly welcome.
When we’ve finished eating, Don returns with the rest shifts. As galley leader, I’ll be on the first rest, along with 6 others. I disappear to the rear lavatories and change out of my shirt and tie into a t-shirt, and climb the stairs to the crew rest compartment.
Sleeping is difficult at the best of times - the crew rest area is located above the passengers cabin at the rear of the aircraft, which is particularly vulnerable to swaying in turbulence. The bunks are pretty hard, and the genius who designed the crew rest area decided to install smoke detector sampling ports at ear-level in each bunk - which produces an amazingly annoying ‘whistling wind’ sound!
Photo © NZ133
For once I manage to drift off to sleep relatively quickly, and the three hours seems to pass in minutes. I’m awakened by Don shaking my shoulder, and he then bursts into song - his own version of ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’. This is not appreciated by the sleepy crew, and he is promptly bombarded with pillows and blankets.
I stagger down the stairs, trying to avoid being seen in my current dishevelled state by the passengers at the back of the aircraft, and lock myself in the lavatory to commence the difficult task of making myself look presentable! This accomplished, and feeling somewhat human again, I head up the aisle to the galley and swap over with the other crew. They inform us that a passenger in seat 35C is feeling a little off-colour, and has vomited. We note down the seat number and as the second shift head off to rest I pay her a visit to see how she’s doing. A nice lady in her 40s, she is very apologetic, and explains she hadn’t been feeling well all day but couldn’t delay her travel plans. I decide that she may benefit from oxygen, and fetch an oxygen bottle from it’s designated stowage. I check the airflow and help her don the mask. I stay with her for five minutes, and some colour returns to her face, so I bring her some ginger ale to help her stomach settle and return the oxygen to it’s stowage, replacing the mask and tagging the old one as being used. I move her to an empty row near the galley so we can keep an eye on her, and also let Mary know, as the oxygen usage needs to be recorded in the sector report.
In the galley, Thomas, myself, and Wendy, the other crew member on our shift in economy, flick through trashy American gossip magazines, express our horror at the ‘Stars Without Makeup!’ feature, and ask each other the three questions that form part of every night shift watch period of any cabin crew member’s conversation - namely, ‘How long have you been flying?’ ‘What are your plans for LA?’, and ‘Where are you off to next?’. We make tentative plans for a visit to In-N-Out Burger in the afternoon, after a couple of hours rest in our rooms. Every 30 minutes we circulate the cabin with juice and water, and periodically answer call bells. It’s a quiet night, and the three hours are dragging, so it’s nice when a couple of wakeful passengers head to the galley for a conversation. The sick passenger is now feeling fine, and is very appreciative of our concern for her well being.
Second Meal Service
Breakfast will be served 2 hours out from LA. One hour before breakfast, I pull out the chilled carts containing the second meal casserole dishes, and Thomas and I start the oven exchange. This consists of pulling out the metal oven inserts (similar to a metal cage with trays) used to heat the first meals, stowing them in the cart, and lifting the new inserts into the oven. Each of these inserts contains 28 meal dishes, so it's quite heavy and requires two to lift. We try our best to do it as silently as possible, but inevitably there's some noise involved in the task as the inserts slide into the oven.
This task completed, I busy myself with preparing various other items for the morning service, then pull out the bar carts and set them up with sparkling wine (champagne), vodka, orange/apple/Tomato juice, plastic glasses, tea/coffee/milk jugs, water bottles, etc. By the time I've finished this, it's time for the meals to go on, so I rotate the switches and the ovens roar into life. Wendy heads to the forward galley to turn on the special meals, and we tidy away all the junk that accumulates (and seems to multiply!) during the night. Mary appears, heading to the rear of the aircraft to rouse the sleeping crew. They soon appear, and I have hot coffee waiting. The meals finish cooking, and Don turns on the cabin lights as I start loading the carts and the other crew distribute the special meals. Mary announces the choice of breakfast - French toast with bacon and peaches, with apple syrup, or scrambled eggs with fried potatoes and tomatoes. Ready to go, we head to the rear of the cabin to begin our second meal service. This makes it fair for the passengers at the rear, who had to wait until last to get their first meal.
While the meal and bar carts proceed up the cabin, I continue loading replacement carts. The breakfast service takes a lot longer than dinner, as everyone seems to want orange juice AND water AND coffee! One passenger remarks to Thomas that she'd never dare ask for more than one drink on the American airline she usually flies, and can hardly believe how polite and accommodating we are!
When everyone has a meal and drink, we return to the galley for a two minute breather, before starting up the cabin again with seconds of tea and coffee. A 747 cabin seems veryyyyy long by this point, as our aching legs attest to! When seconds are done, we return to the galley and have a cuppa ourselves, before pulling out the empty carts, putting a rubbish bin on top, and proceeding through the cabin to collect in the trays. I'm sharing a cart with Don, and as he shares a joke or conversation with each passenger while taking their rubbish, I marvel that someone who started flying as a junior steward in the Lockheed Electra and DC8 days can still have such a passion for his job. I hope I'll be like that - wherever I am in 2040.
The carts return one by one to the galley, and I stow and latch them in their cupboards. The forward galley calls and lets us know the crew meals are done, so we head up and tuck in. The premium crew finish their service, and some join us to swap stories of our trip through the night. They've received many positive comments about the new fully-flat bed seat, and the film star has been a dream passenger - friendly, polite, and has even offered to take photographs or sign autographs for any crew who wish to. Not all celebrities are like that, so our premium crew are particularly pleased.
Descent and Landing
Soon after we've finished breakfast, Linda, our co-pilot, comes over the PA and announces we'll shortly be starting our descent. She informs the passengers that our flight path today will be taking us over Santa Catalina Island, which should provide good views for both sides of the aircraft. Don turns on the arrival video for Los Angeles and I return to the rear galleys to stow and secure everything. On my way back I'm accosted by five passengers, who have all filled in the US documentation incorrectly. We have to carry almost 100 extra forms on each flight, because they're so confusing and poorly laid out. I tell the passengers the easiest way is to start from the bottom and work up, and give them replacement forms. In the galley, I stow all items, and check the latches for each stowage are fastened, preventing them from flying out during our landing. The other crew are going through the cabin for a final rubbish collection.
The arrival video finishes, and we go through the cabin to collect the used headsets. These will return to Auckland, where a company employing intellectually handicapped workers will carefully test and sterilise each headset, and repackage it. Finally, I fill some wicker baskets with the famous Air New Zealand boiled sweets (candy). This has been a tradition since the flying boat days, and originally helped equalise air pressure (through the chewing) during the descent. I choose two children to go through the cabin handing them out. Their grin stretches from ear to ear as I tell them it's a very important job and a skill future flight attendants need to be trained in Their parents snap photos as they walk down the aircraft, and we have two new young Air New Zealand fans! I grab two paper bags and fill them with the remaining sweets, and tell them this is their payment for a job well done, but warn them "Don't eat them all at once, or I'll get in big trouble from your Mummy and Daddy!". Their parents hide smiles as the children solemnly promise me they won't.
Don makes the final PA, advising passengers that they must now be in their seats with the seatbelts fastened, tray tables and footrests stowed, and seatbacks fully upright. We each walk through our designated cabin area. All my passengers are on their best behaviour, so I don't need to prompt anyone to follow the instructions. As I do a final check that the galley is secure, Don makes the PA "Flight attendants must now be seated for landing". I strap myself into my jumpseat and tighten my harness, as ZK-SUJ dips her left wing and sweeps gracefully towards LAX.
As we enter our final approach, I notice a Southwest 737 in the Shamu colour scheme is approaching the parallel runway. The couple in my exit row remark on how close it is, so I reassure them it's a normal procedure for such a busy airport. We're nearly down, and I'm keeping a careful watch out my window, alert for any possibility that something's not normal. At the same time my mind is going through the steps required of me in the event of an emergency. We're sinking rapidly now, over the runway, wheels nearly down... and a gentle bump as our wheels kiss the ground, and ZK-SUJ's 11 hour 37 minute flight is over. A few passengers break into spontaneous applause as reverse thrust engages, and as we turn off the active runway.
Photo © Cameron Bowerman - Airplanespotters
Don's voice comes over the PA system: "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to Los Angeles, California!". Don's PA goes on to notify passengers that we'll be towed into our gate by a tug today, so when the engines stop they must remain seated. He also details the transit requirements for our passengers continuing on to London, and customs procedures for the customers ending their journey here.
"And finally everyone, we hope you've enjoyed your journey up from Auckland today, it's been our pleasure having you onboard. From all your 747 crew, thanks for flying with Air New Zealand and our codeshare partner United Airlines on the Star Alliance network. Take care, and we hope to see you again soon. Thank you and good afternoon".
The tug engages and we inch our way to the gate. Finally the seatbelt sign dings off and the passengers start to get up and empty the overhead lockers. Don's PA comes: "Flight attendants, disarm your doors". I lift the plastic hatch, move the lever to 'Manual', which disengages the slide from the door, and the interphone chime sounds. We again go through our recital: '5Right, door disarmed. 5Left, door disarmed" etc, and then hang up the phone. Door 2L is now open, and our passengers start to disembark. The couple in the exit row thanks me for a lovely flight and says we have great food and great service. An American man tell me it was his first time on Air New Zealand and he loved it and will definitely be back. As the passengers file past my door I say my thank you and goodbyes, and soon the cabin is empty, except for a mother trying to organise her three lively children. Don's voice echoes over the PA system "Last one off has to clean the aircraft!" and for a moment the frazzled mother looks taken aback - then burst into laughter as she sees the grins on our faces. Her tension is gone, and we help her organise her bags and get to the front door.
At Los Angeles
As we gather our rollaboards and gather at Door 2L, Don tells us we had a great number of positive comments from the passengers and thanks us for a great flight. He also tells us we've managed to beat the KLM flight from Amsterdam in, but they're just pulling up to the gate so we'd better leg it to the customs area to be first in the crew line!. We file off the aircraft, exchanging greetings with the Air NZ ground staff, who we mostly know by name. Next door is ZK-NBW, who arrived from Auckland a couple of hours earlier as NZ6, and an NZ 767 is taxiing past as we make our way to customs. We clear customs quickly, talking shop with the KLM crew who arrive shortly after, and our crew bags have already been pulled off by the NZ ground staff and are waiting for us. We clear and make our way to the shuttle pick up point. The shuttle soon arrives, and we all have our $1 bills ready to tip our regular driver. We load our bags in, and collapse into the seats, removing our jackets, loosening our ties, and (in some cases) fitting our Ipods, and settling in for the 45 minute ride to our hotel.
At the hotel, we line up in seniority order at the counter to sign in, and receive the all-important envelope containing our cash allowances. We're scattered throughout various floors, so Thomas, Don, Wendy and myself arrange to meet up in two hours time for the trip to Ralph's Supermarket and In-N-Out burger. I open the door to my room and immediately check it meets our contractual requirements - away from the lift, non-smoking, upper level. All appears good, so I trundle my suitcase, fit the 'Do Not Disturb' sign, and collapse on the king-sized bed. Work is officially over, and we have two nights here to rest before we do it all again on the way back! It's a strange, transient life - but one that at the moment, I feel lucky and privileged to have, and I wouldn't want to change for the world!