Friday, July 22, 2011

Flight Attendants Flying High and on TV Too

Photo courtesy ABC
Am I the only one who has circled September 25 on the calendar? That would be the day that ABC's new show Pan Am begins. I know I'm not alone in my excitement about a Hollywood recreation of this golden age of aviation. 

Just the other day while trying to get a photo of the famous Emirates flight attendants for a story I am writing for The New York Times, I asked them, not a one of whom was American, "Do you know that scene from Catch Me If You Can?" and without having to explain that I was talking about the 2002 movie in which Leonardo DiCaprio strides through JFK in the company of a bevy of beautiful stewardesses, they all nodded "of course".

I have to wonder, is that the scene that launched a television pilot? Because watching the trailer, there's plenty of the breath-taking, en masse strolling that delivered the punch in the movie, and clearly is part of the punch ABC is planning to deliver with this retro-fantasy about air travel.

But wait, maybe its not a fantasy. Even though flying on most airlines may lead travelers to believe beautiful, personable, customer-focused flight attendants do not exist, I'm here to tell you there is a small coterie, an exclusive little club of airlines whose executives believe this class of employee is first class, no matter where on the airplane he or she is stationed. 

In addition to Emirates, "Etihad and Qatar Airways" are two other Middle Eastern carriers who get it, suggested Shashank Nigam, the man behind the airline marketing firm, SimpliFlying.   Then he added, Singapore, Korean Air, Southwest and Virgin Atlantic.

Catherine Baird SVP for cabin crew training with new recruits
Well of course, good looks as a criteria for hiring someone is the kind of retro a lot of feminists, myself included, have long opposed.  But what these airlines are doing isn't really about having the most physically attractive flight attendants. 

Catherine Baird, director of training for Emirates told me, "Heck, we can make anybody look beautiful." What she is looking for is that under-the-surface quality that makes a person shine.

During my week attending classes at Emirate's  crew training center in Dubai the overwhelming focus was on teaching students how to forge relationships with customers.  An entire day was spent in a revival-like, team-building program in which students are asked to think about the airline's values and figure out ways they will apply those values on the airplane. This is both touchy-feelie-stars-in-the-sky stuff and a ground level exercise in how to put ones' self in the shoes of the traveler.

Nicole Domett of Aviation and Travel Training Group in Auckland, New Zealand told me it was absolutely critical that airline management recognize and communicate the importance of the role of flight attendants not just for safety but for the whole maggilah.  In a long-ranging conversation about service standards in the industry, she was unequivocal.  The CEO has to "share the vision" with the flight attendants and with their trainers she said.

Pan Am the television show may be Mad Men with wings, a glossy vehicle about high altitude hijinks. But how great would it be if the show convinced airline bosses around the world that flight attendants can be powerful ambassadors for their brands. They might even start to empower flight attendants to be the stars the airlines and the passengers want them to be. 

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