It's a glamorous life being an air hostess - oops, cabin crew member (female) - oh yes it is. You get to stagger out of bed at 3am, and, despite the sticky heat of July, haul yourself into full uniform (including tights, whatever the weather) and full make-up almost before you wake up - not forgetting the jaunty red beret and multi-coloured scarf, if you happen to work for Britannia Airlines. For the routine Britannia short-haul holiday charter flight BY256 to Almeria in Spain, the report time for cabin crew is 5.25am at Gatwick Airport. This is a hideous time to have to turn up for work, but despite the early hour the regular crew looked unnaturally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed last Thursday morning.

The flight to Almeria takes around two-and-a-half hours; but once the plane has been cleaned and tidied it turns straight round to come back. So although the blue Mediterranean is only a few hundred yards from the runway, and the air from the opened doors is a tantalising gust of warm Spanish breeze, the only reason any of the crew has to step outside is to sneak a quick cigarette (smoking on all flights is strictly forbidden and any passengers who have the bright idea of blocking the smoke alarms in the loo with tissue paper or chewing gum are told off most severely). On short-haul European flights, it's quite possible to fly out and back without setting foot on foreign soil - Britannia alone operates around 70 such return flights every day from British airports.

The first lost passport, abandoned in the departure lounge, had been retrieved by the long-suffering cabin staff before the last passengers had boarded the plane. Apparently even the sanest people tend to lose their heads at airports - "even if they're professors," according to Linda, the cabin manager, who has been flying for Britannia for 21 years.

Linda is unfailingly patient with the scatty, though some of her younger colleagues are less charitable. "People check in their brains along with their luggage," says Dave, aka Ginger, 26 and the joker of today's crew, who describes himself as ex- electrician, ex-gardener, ex-DJ and ex-Casanova.

As a potential recruit, I fail on several counts: too many bracelets, wrong earrings (jewellery is regulation only), a watch too big and ostentatious, untidy hair and not enough lipstick, which is a bit galling. Also, nobody mentioned in advance that support tights are a good idea, and despite my extremely limited role, before long my legs are aching and my feet are hurting. At least this morning's quota of holiday-makers, given the early hour and the family destination, are relatively easy to handle. For real fun and frolics, the Friday night flights to Ibiza, dubbed the disco planes, are the ones. "They're all out of their heads on the ecckies," says Dave, with a grin.

"They take them in the terminal so they're just about kicking in on the flight," adds his colleague Tim (unkindly dubbed Christopher Biggins by the playful Dave). Sam, petite and long-haired, barely makes the minimum five foot two height requirement. She mimics the sing-song of the in-flight announcements: "You have a choice of ecstasy, speed or cocaine on the drugs cart this evening." Sam is bemused by the frisky couples who attempt to join the mile-high club in the plane loos. "I can't think of anything more disgusting than doing it in there. I just bang on the door and tell them there's only one oxygen mask in there, so one of them had better come out."

No such antics on the early morning flight, however, which staidly chows down on the hot breakfast. The plastic trays of pre-prepared sausage, bacon, egg and baked beans are dished out from one of those narrow trolleys with the metal trays that look like a meal- morgue on wheels. This is the second task after the safety drill - those fluid swimming motions pointing out the exits have been pretty much superseded by video technology. Sadly, though, Tim does get to indicate the doors we just came in through to anyone at the front of the plane who might not have noticed them. The time-honoured advice to whistle for help whilst re-inflating your life-jacket through a small straw whilst bobbing in the midst of the trackless ocean is now demonstrated by an unnaturally calm cartoon-graphic girl.

Though they may be a cheeky

bunch behind the purple curtain of the front galley (which is the size of a decent walk-in wardrobe), all the staff are the model of decorum when they whisk out with their pots of tea and coffee and the Kiddie Packs for the junior flyers (at least one of whom is howling lustily before the plane has even reached the end of the runway). Despite the fact that trolleys are a prominent in-flight feature, all the cabin staff sniff at the idea that they could be seen as "trolley dollies". "The public has a much better idea of what we do now, and know that the job is hard," says Linda. The uniform, she says, carries plenty of respect with it. And anyway, she adds with a laugh, in the days when glamour was the main criteria, the aisles were wide enough to wiggle up - now they're much narrower.

Linda, who has seen it all in her time, is the model of an old-style stewardess - she would never dream of letting the least criticism of any passenger, however maddening, pass her immaculately rouged lips (she always keeps a lipstick in the pocket of her pinny). She is certainly not the type of stewardess who would descend scantily clad onto the runway to run round the plane for a bet, unlike the recent much-reported young hoyden who did just that. A former model, tall and statuesque, she can quell an unruly passenger with one glance - plane rage, she believes, is a highly exaggerated phenomenon. She says that, though the real glamour days of her profession are in the past, it will never lose its romantic aura in the public eye.

Nevertheless, her criteria for a good cabin crew member are down-to-earth: common sense, patience, humour and a strong stomach. She has dealt with most things, from crafty tipplers to miscarriages to resuscitating the collapsed and, she says, would never ask one of her crew to tackle anything she wouldn't do herself, including mopping up sick when necessary. Sometimes what is required is beyond the call of duty, as in the case of the unfortunate woman who had picked up an uncontrollably nasty case of enteritis somewhere in Greece. "The poor thing was so embarrassed. We wrapped her in blankets, washed out her trousers in the little sink and dried them over the oven, and we were able to give them back to her to get off the plane," she recalls, without batting an eyelid.

This job seems like hard work for little reward - the starting salary is less than pounds 9,000. The only obvious fun to be had is the chance to ham it up over the in-flight PA system for the announcements about not smoking or fastening seatbelts (Tim, in particular, makes Dale Winton look rather subdued). However, added to that are financial extras for each flight made plus commission on in-flight sales. Besides, it seems, short-haul is the boring bread-and-butter of the job: the real fun is in long-haul flights, with their paid stopovers that can mean several days or even weeks in the US or the Caribbean or the Bahamas.

Long-haul is a completely different cup of tea, or rather glass of champagne, according to Paula, who frequently hands the stuff out on flights to the US and Asia with another well-known airline. And the passengers are naughtier. "When the lights go down and everyone's meant to be asleep it's far from unknown for couples to, erm, get together, especially if there are empty seats they can move across to," she says. "They seem to think they're invisible because they've put a blanket over them."

Sasha, who jets between the Far East, Asia and the States for a different airline, receives plenty of extra-curricular offers from wealthy businessmen - the favourite is to ask her to spend her stopover with them. "I certainly don't accept, though some of the girls might be tempted," she says primly. "Things were different a few years ago, before everyone was so aware of Aids, and a lot of the cabin staff used to play away from home, sometimes with the passengers. You were often offered lovely presents, but of course there were strings attached." She believes that the more expensive the ticket, the worse-behaved the customers. "Because they've paid a lot they think they've bought you along with the journey. I bet this is one of the only jobs left where you still risk getting your bum pinched. The ones who drink too much are the worst." In short-haul, where food is pre- packed, she says ominously, the opportunities for sabotaging unruly passengers' meals are limited, but with a particularly obnoxious high-class flyer, adding a little something extra to the dishes is not impossible.

But play your cards right and the pickings can be rich: Dimitra Papandreou, Sara Netanyahu and Annita Keating managed to bag prime ministers of Greece, Israel and Australia respectively. A couple of Sasha's friends have met their husbands in-flight. "They are a captive audience when they're on the plane," she says with a giggle. "Naturally, we do prefer serving the ones who are quite hunky and gorgeous, so they probably get more spoiled than the fat and horrible passengers."

No such rich pickings on the Britannia flight to Almeria, sadly. "Do we get girls saying `Any chance later on, mate?' Not often," says Dave wistfully.