The sky's the limit

They can serve a drink, restrain a terrorist and fit a week's worth of shopping and partying into a two-hour stopover in Bahrain. Anita Chaudhuri on the extraordinary, dislocated lifestyle of the airline steward

Few professions ignite such flamboyant stereotypes in the popular imagination as that of the humble air steward. Mocked for their "trolley dolly" status, flight attendants still have to contend with the old "coffee- tea-or-me" jokes attached to the job (indeed, another common nickname is "flying mattress"). Yet there's more to being an air steward than dishing out meals these days. They are expected to be nurse, amateur psychologist and SAS superhero all rolled into one.

For six-and-a-half years Luke has been a senior cabin crew member with a top international airline. "You have to know your first aid for a start. On the flights to Australia we have a lot of elderly passengers. It's not uncommon for someone to die on board," he says matter-of-factly. "We try to move the deceased to a rest area but if it's a full flight and the person's in economy, it's not always possible. If it's a night flight and no one's noticed, we just throw a blanket over the body." Luke has also witnessed someone having a stroke, and a baby who stopped breathing. "My friend had to give the baby mouth-to-mouth. It was very dramatic, he saved its life."

Popular culture doesn't exactly help the public image of cabin crew: the film Jackie Brown celebrated an air stewardess's talent for drug smuggling, BBC2's High Life series featured the deliciously camp antics of two male stewards, and TV commercials advertise the vacant sexual promise of the girls at Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. Even the Internet pokes fun at "trolley dolly" culture - one site has joke pages with titles like "A To Do List for Female Air Stewards". The list includes things like "Check out what celebrities are sitting in first-class and accidentally brush up against them." There's also the implausibly titled "Bitchy Flight Attendant" site where readers can post their in-flight horror stories. Yet while cabin crew are ridiculed, they are also right in the firing line when it comes to allegations of drug smuggling, sexual misdemeanours and out-of-control crew parties in far-flung locales. Bad behaviour seems to go with the territory as a quick romp through some recent newspaper stories will testify. One tabloid revealed details of a wild party in a Cape Town hotel where a British Airways pilot and a male cabin crew member were caught having sex with a stewardess on a grand piano. The News of the World ran the story of how a British Airways stewardess supplemented her income by working as a long-haul stripper in far-flung locales with her imaginatively titled troupe, Sex on Legs. She complained to undercover reporters that her pounds 15,000-a-year BA salary simply wasn't enough to get by on. She was suspended.

The pay is not particularly seductive - a scheduled carrier will pay a junior steward around pounds 14,000, while a cabin services director gets approximately pounds 25,000 - though they can add between pounds 4,000 (junior staff) and pounds 10,000 (senior) to that through a combination of overtime and the daily subsistence money the airlines pay during stopovers. Charter companies tend to pay less and offer shorter stopovers between flights. However, the lure of cheap air tickets, flexible hours and up to 15 days off in a row if you work the system, means the job is still hugely attractive. The low salaries can lead cabin crew into temptation. One British airline stewardess was charged with stealing from the Duty Free cart on a flight from New York. Seven others of the airline's employees were suspended.

Tales of excitable male crew members are rife. One of the most harrowing concerned John Robertson, a Qantas steward who was jailed for six years for sexually assaulting cabin crew members. The 35-year-old steward spiked colleagues' drinks with the "date rape" drug Rohyphnol and then raped them. Thirteen women and one man claimed to have been attacked, a court in Queensland, Australia, heard. But perhaps the most poignant "trolley dolly" story of the year is the news that Alcoholics Anonymous has set up a branch at Gatwick Airport. Industry sources suggest that around 10 per cent of aviation workers suffer from alcohol problems, twice the national average.

"The lifestyle associated with flying can impose stresses on staff. The use of alcohol to relieve these stresses is known as symptom-directed coping," comments Helen Muir, professor of aerospace psychology at Cranfield University. Mark, a steward with a charter airline which flies to the Middle East says: "The girls are the worst. They would probably drink jet fuel if they thought it would get them high."

Life as an air steward, agrees Luke, has drawbacks. "The job is tough on relationships, on family and friends. When you get home you have to make all the effort because people assume you're away all the time. Sometimes you don't feel that great, you're jet-lagged, you can't sleep and your skin feels like shit. Some mornings when you are away, you wake up feeling tragic, you're in a hideous hotel room and you're thousands of miles from home - that's not glamour."

So, is life for airline cabin crew characterised by out-of-control sex, booze and quiet despair? Lorna Gale is a flight supervisor who has worked for Virgin Atlantic since 1987 and is an ex-model. "A lot of models become air stewards, I suppose because as a profession we're quite image-conscious. Yes, it's a glamorous job in that you're travelling all the time so you get to know the best shops, restaurants and bars in loads of different cities. Virgin put us up in really nice hotels and since our flights are long-haul, there's a lot of bonding between crew members." However, she adds, "When we reach our destination, we tend to go out for a drink together but I wouldn't say there's this wild scene going on. People forget that during a flight we're on our feet the whole time. Sometimes when I touch down all I want to do is sleep. I tend not to go out clubbing all night - the job is too gruelling to be able to cope with a hangover."

Mark agrees that there is a certain glamour attached to the job but that a steward's lifestyle is often dictated by the airline and the route. "I've been flying for a year and it's been the best time of my life. I fly to Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, there are only a few flights a week and that's great because it means stopovers of about three or four days out there."

But it's certainly not all glamour. "You're often on call to fly at very short notice, especially when you're just starting out," he says. "You've always got to be ready with a bag packed and your uniform clean and ironed. The nightmare scenario is having a heavy night out and sleeping in.

"You have to be a bit of a poser, too, you have to enjoy waltzing around in a ridiculous uniform, which explains why most male stewards are gay.

"When you're flying, people tend to treat you like what you are, a waiter," says Mark. "But what no one realises is that you have to be able to deal with absolutely anything that happens. Unlike waiters, we have to know what to do when a woman starts giving birth, or a kid has a epileptic fit or someone has a panic attack. Also, we're supposed to be amateur psychologists and read the behaviour of passengers as they come on board."

The threat of the crazed hijacker is not reserved for airline disaster movies. "Once I had a psycho in my area of the plane," remembers Mark. "He managed to get on to the flight deck and tried to beat up one of the pilots. You have to be really careful how you handle an incident like that - we do have a restraint kit and we used it in that instance."

There isn't much to do in a Middle East location except have a wild time, Mark says. "It's not like Paris or New York where you can go sightseeing. You're pretty much holed up in your hotel. In our crew's case, I would say flying is about getting there and getting pissed."

But however wild things get, crew usually sober up in time for the flight. "There's a rule that you're not allowed alcohol eight hours before the flight," says Mark. "Drugs are taboo, people don't talk about taking them but our airline doesn't have checks. Even with those that do check [all US airlines], crew still do drugs - like athletes, they've discovered ways to outwit the tests." The most common drug is amphetamines. "People find they help to pep them up when their body clocks are telling them to sleep."

Mark uses his job to see the world and in the past two months he has spent only six nights at home. "We get cheap fares but the airline is mean, they won't let us have business-class seats. I've found a way round this, though, when I get on the plane I announce myself to the cabin staff, tell them I'm crew and ask if they need a hand just to give me a shout. That works every time."

Luke agrees that the life has its moments. "When I was a student, my typical midnight snack would be a Pot Noodle, now it's likely to be caviar pinched from the first-class trolley. You're not really supposed to but usually we just help ourselves to the passenger food. We're not allowed to drink on board but you can smuggle it off in your luggage, vodka in Evian bottles, champagne in the apple-juice cartons.

"We tend to do lots of shopping and we know all the best places to get discount designer stuff, but of course there's a strict rule on us paying duty. So we have to take CDs out of their cases and labels off clothes. Once they did a spot-check on a male crew member and found a pair of new women's shoes in his case, a present for his wife. He didn't want to pay the duty so he said, `Look, they're mine. What I do in my spare time is nobody's business' and they let him off."

What about affairs with passengers? "It can be embarrassing if a passenger starts giving you the eye, especially if you don't fancy them," says Luke. "A business-class passenger I didn't fancy at all asked me out in front of my boss. I took his card and promised I'd call. Of course I never did."

Naomi has been flying for 13 years with a major carrier on long-haul routes. "I can't believe the way passengers behave sometimes," she exclaims. "The minute they get on, they expect to be treated like royalty, even if they're in economy. If there's been a long delay, they often take their frustration out on the stewards. That's when we have to apply what's known as `service recovery'. I usually invite them up to the flight deck - especially if we're passing an amazing view like the Northern Lights. If that fails, well, plying them with champagne usually works."

Naomi sometimes flies first-class, but she says this is tougher than economy as people demand constant attention. "You're always worried about doing something wrong and offending some incredibly important person," she says.

She claims that sexual harassment is rife. "Businessmen on long flights often drink too much and then start behaving badly. Once the chairman of a multi-national company looked at my name-badge and greeted me like an old friend. I said, `Sorry, have we met before?' He said, `Sure we have, Naomi, we slept together last night and it was fantastic, don't you remember?' All the passengers were staring at me. It was so embarrassing but all I could do was ignore him and report the incident to the supervisor."

Health problems are commonplace among cabin crew. "We tend to get a lot of back problems - those trolleys are surprisingly heavy - and colds and flu-like bugs because we're breathing in recycled air the whole time," Naomi explains. "And your skin goes as dry as paper if you don't look after it." The worst scare, though, is the increased risk of breast cancer, which a recent report attributed to the debilitating effects of jet-lag.

Eating disorders are another hazard of the job. "Because you have to maintain a certain weight, some of the girls get hang-ups about it. If your uniform suddenly doesn't fit, then you're in trouble. Some binge and then take Ex-Lax, others starve and take Dexedrine."

Paul Keithley, director of training at Virgin Atlantic, says he believes the days of trolley dollies are over. "We're a bit more scientific than that now. We're looking for people who're positive and outgoing, but also personalities who understand psychology. In our training sessions we teach transactional analysis to help staff understand passenger behaviour." He says would-be flight attendants are warned about some of the perils of the career before they sign up. "We tell them it's a lifestyle, not a job"

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