Underway with a SWISS cabin crew
I travel a lot professionally – but never like this. At the end of August, I accompanied a SWISS crew from Zurich to Bangkok and back as a temporary flight attendant. Until then, I was pretty sure I knew what the job of the flight crew was like. Seeing this work from the perspective of the flight crew, however, utterly changed my image of the occupation. And the experience taught me one important thing: an enormous respect for cabin crews. As a travel professional with many years’ experience, I was surprised and impressed by how many details must come together harmoniously for passengers to enjoy an agreeable and relaxed flight.
The nerve centre is the Operations Control Center
We agreed to meet at Zurich airport’s Operations Control Center. All of SWISS’s operational and communications threads come together here. The daily organisation of flights is a multi-layered interaction of finely spun processes and complex interconnections. Tens of thousands of passengers, hundreds of flights and connections must be constantly coordinated and calibrated. Every day and around the clock, the airline’s employees in the Operations Control Center watch over about eighteen million SWISS passengers who fly in a fleet of 100 airplanes into every corner of the world and back to Switzerland.
My flight escort adventure begins with a 20-minute briefing shortly before take-off. The entire crew, from the pilot to the flight attendants, are in attendance for this important information exchange. I am introduced briefly to the crew as a new colleague for the upcoming flight. Then Captain Reto addresses the team and outlines his expectations for the flight. He informs his crew about the likely weather conditions, technical issues and other details from the pilot’s perspective in a professional, direct and yet collegial manner. He asks his crew to voice any concerns or worries they may have now or even during the flight. Safety and the well-being of the passengers and his crew are uppermost in his mind.
Swissness from A to Z
Then Fabien the purser and his colleague Laura assign tasks on board. The only people scheduled in advance are those who will be working in First class tonight. All other roles in Economy and Business class are assigned shortly before take-off during this briefing. I am surprised to note that this involves neither reservations nor privileges. No one is too good to assume the duty of clearing off the folding trays and then separating the waste during the very hectic food service in Economy class. That same colleague may then find themselves on the next flight making recommendations from the wine list to Business class passengers. Fabien closes the briefing with a few comments on the catering offerings on this flight or special guests like unaccompanied children or VIPs. Then he mentions “Swissness”. This is the Swiss airline’s trump card and covers everything from the selected food to the way the cabin is fitted out all the way to the uniforms, the entertainment programme, and the friendly, helpful demeanour of the crew. It includes the “Grüezi” on landing in Zurich. Who hasn’t been in the situation? Just before landing the SWISS cabin attendants go through the cabin with a basket of chocolates. These basic tenets of Swiss hospitality evidently belong to SWISS’s DNA.
Just before take-off, the teams of each of the three classes discuss the operational procedures one last time. I will be assisting the colleagues in Economy class on the way to Bangkok. We meet for a second briefing in the galley, the relatively spacious kitchen in the back of the Boeing 777-300ER. With us on board are three Thai crew members. On certain SWISS long-haul flights, it is customary to include crew members from the destination country, and one of our Asian colleagues will be responsible for the galley. He explains to us briefly his ideas on the way the service will unfold, where which waste should be disposed of or where the beverages are stowed for refills. To start with, the passengers will be offered drinks and a small snack. Then follows the main meal service to be concluded with tea and coffee. On today’s flight, we will be testing something potentially new for the SWISS service offering: we will be distributing water bottles for the quiet nighttime. The idea behind the test is to see whether passengers feel less disturbed with the water bottles than if crew members go up and down the aisles during the night to refill plastic cups with water.
A bonded “Team Eco”
At the end we all stand up and pledge our committment to “Team Eco”. Suddenly it dawns on me that this adventure really is about to begin: 240 hungry, thirsty and partially already tired passengers are waiting for my colleagues and me to begin the dinner service.
What intrigues already me is how these crews, forever reconfiguring themselves, work together effortlessly and without apparent prior agreement. The procedures appear to be a performance and everyone on the team can rely on the other. Flight attendants at SWISS work on both long and short-haul flights. And in that vein, they must be familiar with very different airplane types. My colleague Laura is often assigned to European flights and therefore usually on smaller airplanes than the wide body jet we are on tonight. And yet her every move evinces familiarity with her surroundings. When we reach cruising altitude, the four small teams of two people each begin the first drinks service. The trolleys are like mobile minibars. They are open in the front and back and allow us quick and unfettered access to the drinks and the snacks. We have hardly arrived in the main cabin when the orders start coming in: a Bloody Mary here, a spicy tomato juice there, a gin and tonic with extra ice for the young lady and a diet coke for the teenager next to her. And meanwhile we dish out nuts relentlessly – and then we’re already at the next row.
Teamwork at 11’000 metres
The aisle between the window row and the centre seats is narrow, about as wide as the service trolley. What looks easy to a passenger is a never-ending balancing act: we have to make sure not to bump into the back of a seat or ride over the ankle of a passenger comfortably spreading out into the aisle. I hold a plastic cup in one hand, a bottle or a juice container in the other – and I should have a third hand to open the container. Then there’s salt and pepper or a stirrer to be handed out. Here too, crew members work together seamlessly. For example, as I hear the next order being given to my colleague, I hand him the ice or the lemon as quickly as possible. And at the next drink, I get the same help from my counterpart in return.
Sometimes, however, it’s not easy to understand the passenger. There’s the noise of the airplane on the one hand. And if the guest is sitting by the window and also has a soft voice, it can be challenging – especially if they have a strong accent or speak only a little English.
Serving all the drinks and meals takes us about two-and-a-half hours. Throughout, we are busy serving drinks or refills, preparing the trays, serving food, and clearing up. I have already understood from this, my first deployment that the work of a cabin crew member is neither easy nor undemanding. The work is onerous, and my colleagues cover several kilometres during a long-haul flight. And there is the constant pressure of expectations from the passengers. While the teams are serving up front, there is one person in the galley permanently preparing further meals, pots of tea and coffee and other beverages. As well as cleaning up and separating waste.
When the meal service is finished, half of the team retires for a few hours to a rest area reserved for the crew members. This separate cabin is not particularly spacious but it does afford the possibility to stretch out and rest for a bit. In the time between services, one half of the crew relieves the other. I sit back in my seat and it is only now that I realize how strenuous the past few hours have been. For me this experience is unique; for my colleagues it is an everyday occurrence, every flight. Before I doze off for an hour or so, my mind goes over the service and my impressions of it one more time. I’m especially impressed by the teamwork. Crew members assist each other everywhere and in every situation. No one is too precious to take on a task – whatever needs to be done is handled independently of rank or experience. Crew members rely on each other absolutely. This would seem to be what makes these teams tick. And with those impressions of my first experience, I fall asleep.
Some two hours before we land in Bangkok, the lights slowly go on in the cabin, the passengers are handed out a refreshment towel, and gradually the next meal service begins. Once again “Team Eco” is called for. The meal service is one matter; altogether another are the passengers who can’t find their preferred film in the entertainment programme or who have mislaid the entry form for Thailand. So, I return to the galley to organise another one for them.
It’s ten in the morning in Bangkok, our flight time from Zurich has taken us a bit over ten hours. We come out of the terminal to board our transfer bus and one thing is immediately apparent: we are in Asia. The hot and humid air is oppressive. On the way into town, Captain Reto explains how we’ll be spending the following 48 hours in the Thai capital. Most of us will be sharing a meal together this evening; it appears to be a familiar occasion for the crew to mix under more relaxed circumstances. On this one too, I never have the impression of being an outsider; I am an unconditional part of this extraordinary crew.
Crew members spend their time in Bangkok in very different ways: someone goes for a round of golf outside of this mega-city; some others’ ritual consists of spoiling themselves with a manicure, a pedicure and a relaxing massage. Others just sleep in, hang out or read by the pool. Some delve into the swarming city.
On the way back to Bangkok airport, we hold the customary briefing. Captain Reto again goes through the most important information concerning the upcoming flight and at the same time thanks his crew for their performance to date. Reto also knows that he can rely on his crew one hundred percent.
Host above the skies
The return flight to Zurich is a daytime flight. We leave Bangkok at 1pm local time and will arrive in Zurich at just before 8pm. Compared to the outward flight to Thailand, a night flight, a daytime flight has a completely different dynamic. I am again assigned to the Economy cabin. Most passengers are awake, and few use the time to sleep. As a result, “Team Eco” will feel the pressure during the flight’s two meal services. My colleagues kiddingly refer to this type of flight as “permanent entertainment” because we will be going up and down the aisles serving drinks or snacks continuously.
The flight is calm and without turbulence despite the weather forecast. In the early evening, as we come in over the Vorarlberg Alps towards the Lake of Constance, and prepare the cabin for landing, the captain and his two co-pilots steer the plane for its approach to Zurich. When we arrive in Kloten, we gather together to have photos taken in front of one of the two powerful turbines of the B777-300ER.
As the group assembles before the gigantic engine, I look to my left and to my right and see these friendly and cordial colleagues and I feel privileged to have been a part of this fantastic team. This crew and their extraordinary team spirit have really impressed me. What convinced me is their respectful and considerate ways with each other. I’m sure our passengers also felt their cohesion in some way.
These two flights will stick in my memory for a long time. I learnt a great deal about the very hard but also fascinating job “in the air”. And even as a tourism expert who is often in the air, only now do I understand how many details must fit together and coordinate to make a flight truly relaxing.
Source: REISEWELTEN, das Magazin von knecht reisen