EVERYONE thinks being a flight attendant is a glamorous job – flying around the world hardly sounds difficult, even if you have to serve the tea.
But after spending a day at British Airways’ Global Training Academy, I can tell you that commanding the plane at 37,000ft is no easy task.
While it doesn’t take years of academic training like becoming a pilot does, being a BA flight attendant isn’t a walk in the park either.
It takes six solid weeks of both exams and training exercises, and crew have to do refresher courses every year.
One of the hardest and most daunting aspects of the job is the medical training – crew have to become a doctor in seconds if there’s an emergency on board, and they have to work in cramped conditions with limited resources.
I joined British Airways’ cabin crew training day to see whether I could save someone in the air.
What do cabin crew have to do in an emergency
There are four main roles cabin crew have to play in a medical emergency – the assessor, the first person on the scene; the collector, who gets all equipment; the supporter, who backs up the assessor; and the communicator, who discusses and shares information.
If there aren’t four crew members available on board, then they downsize the emergency team to just two.
BA Learning and Performance Executive Christopher Thomas explained: “Many are shocked [by] how much we have to deal with on a daily basis. It’s beyond a nosebleed or small cut, as we deal with life-saving elements too.
“We can be a firefighter, a doctor, only to then serve tea and coffee, so we have to be able to do everything.”
He added that crew can feel “quite daunted” during training when they realise they will be the first on the scene during a medical emergency, and that it can be up to them to save a life.
Fortunately, most flight attendants have some form of previous experience – some have been in the healthcare profession or were in the police, for example.
But they still have to be trained to use the specialist equipment on board.
What medical equipment is on board a plane?
All planes will carry medical equipment on board, ranging from a CPR kit to two different kinds of first aid kits.
Passengers who have minor ailments can be treated using the MS2 kit, which contains plasters and painkillers.
The bigger MS5 kit on long haul flights has everything from epi-pens to a delivery pack, which can be used to help deliver a baby on board – although the trainers reassure me this is extremely rare.
Cabin crew also have access to Medlink – specialist doctors who can be contacted for advice in case of a medical emergency in the air.
What to do if someone is choking
One of the first things to learn is how to save someone from choking.
And the first thing to do? As obvious as it seems, it’s asking “are you choking?”
I was taught how to do a back-blow to try and dislodge a blockage from a dummy, before moving to an abdominal thrust when extra help is needed.
As it happens, it’s all about where you apply pressure.
It didn’t take long for me to realise that remaining calm and knowing the order of the procedure is much harder when you’re in a cramped position, and that I would definitely panic and forget what to do.
Thankfully, I managed to successfully clear the dummy’s airway – this time.
How to do CPR on a passenger
The next part of the medical training is in the I-craft, a fully simulated aircraft for evacuation, which is controlled by an iPad.
Here, cabin crew are taught the procedure for performing CPR on a passenger on a plane.
The first thing I noticed was that the aisle was extremely narrow – but the version we trained in was actually wider than most aircraft.
The trainers explained how it is up to the crew to do the actual CPR, even if there is a doctor on board.
And as you have to be a “bit of a contortionist” to be able to do the job, medical professionals aren’t usually trained for it.
Of course, the crew can listen to advice from doctors or get medical assistance if needed.
The crew will never declare someone dead on board – they will always wait until the plane has landed and the passenger has received medical attention on the ground.
This is because only official medical professionals are legally allowed to declare the death.
When CPR is needed, the first thing cabin crew will need to do is to clear the area.
Everything from the tray tables to other passengers will need to be pushed out of the way.
Like CPR elsewhere, crew must shake and shout at the passenger, asking if they are alright.
The key is to listen out for a response, which can be hard in a noisy cabin.
The scary part comes if there is no response – this is when crew get the specialist equipment, which includes a defibrillator, the MS5 kit and oxygen.
While bent down over the dummy, between the aisles, I realised how small the area was, and that I would be surrounded by passengers, all while trying to save someone’s life.
The other passengers will most likely be upset, and they will be watching.
I also quickly realised how strong my arms had to be – you have to be able to do CPR for two minutes to pass the training, which seems like a lifetime in the moment.
During the procedure, I had to count up to 30 while I pushed down on a specific spot on the chest, before starting back at zero again.
The machine has a metronome to follow and a robot voice tells me to go faster or slower, or harder or softer, which helps, but I still needed to concentrate and be aware of my surroundings.
The machine will also bark at me to “assess the heart patient”, where everyone has to stop touching the passenger and wait.
It then advises a shock, where I press a button to activate the defibrillator, and then begin CPR again.
The whole operation is much louder than you might think – the machine yells “good compressions” and “stay calm” at you while flight crew are loudly repeating what it is saying for the benefit of the rest of the crew.
Chris added that if the situation happens toward the end of the flight, crew have to make the hard decision to put the person back in their seat while they strap into their own seats for landing.
Fellow learning performance executive Jade explained: “It can be a tough decision to see crew leave the patient and get to their seats, but we have to make sure we are able to help the rest of the plane in an emergency”.
And if crew are forced to perform CPR, they are given counselling afterwards as it can be a traumatic experience for all involved.
By the end of my two minutes, not only was I sweating but my arms were aching.
Although I was met with a round of applause, it’s sobering to think that crew and passengers could be forced to do this in real life and for much longer.
Crew have to do CPR for a minimum of 30 minutes on adults (60 minutes for children under one as the defibrillator can’t be used), although they can take turns in intervals of 10 minutes.
One thing was for sure – I would make a terrible doctor, and an even worse flight attendant.
We also went behind the scenes with British Airways to find out everything that happens between a plane landing and a plane taking off – with just 90 minutes turnaround.
A flight attendant revealed how you could be called to help during an emergency if you are an ABP (able-bodied passenger).
Passengers have shared their experiences of what happens is someone sadly passes away during a flight.