The Sharp End: Cabin doors to manual

A short-haul Irish airline took Rhymer Rigby on board. Tea or coffee, madam?

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In these days of shoebombers and obsessive corporate image control who would have me? I thought no airline would be game for The Sharp End. So I was delighted when the small Irish operator Aer Arann invited me to hang out with its cabin crew for the day. Gratefully, I showed up, breezed through Luton airport (apart from a spot of cappuccino rage at a well-known coffee chain) and boarded one of its planes. There, I was introduced to pilots John and Gerry and cabin crew Vicky and Orla, all dressed in stylish retro uniforms that recalled the golden age of aviation.

On our first hop, from Luton to Waterford, the flight was full so I sat in the cockpit jump seat of the ATR 72, between the pilots. This doesn't have much to do with being cabin crew, but it's good fun and makes flying feel like a video game - especially at Waterford, where the runway is so short you wonder if the pilot's going to have to execute a handbrake turn to stop in time.

Our next destination was Birmingham. Now I was working. For safety reasons, I had to sit down like a passenger during take-off and, obviously, couldn't do a safety demonstration (training is a long process for cabin crew, who earn an average of EUR30,000 a year). But I was allowed to hand out newspapers. I must have a face for selling freesheets, as I ran out before I got to the back and spent the last five rows apologising.

Papers dispensed, I headed to the galley area at the rear, where the behind-the-scenes work is done. Here, space is at such a premium that every nook and cranny is pressed into service. It's a pretty cramped place for one person to be warming baby milk while the other adds up beverage sales in two currencies.

I chatted to Vicky and Orla. They'd both worked for other airlines (Air France and BA), starting out in ground-based roles before doing a cabin-crew course. 'It kind of gets into your bloodstream,' Orla told me. There's a lot to it and you have to sit refresher exams every year.

I wondered if they had ambitions to switch to one of the big carriers. Many cabin crew use small airlines as stepping-stones to the global giants, but they told me the real plus about working for local outfits: you go home almost every night and can spend time with your family. Working for the more glamorous carriers, a lot of nights have to be spent in airport hotels.

Aer Arann is based in Dublin and flies to destinations across the UK and Eire, plus Jersey, and Lorient and Nantes in northern France. It's small enough for everyone to know everyone and socialise together, they said.

The airline carries a lot of commuters - and holiday traffic in the summer. For this reason it didn't feel anything like another, better-known, low-cost Irish airline - although there was a famous air-rage incident a few years back where a drunken passenger head-butted the captain. On the ground, luckily.

In true budget-carrier style, Birmingham was a quick turnaround and we barely had time to pop our heads outside. Meanwhile, a mix-up meant the passengers arrived early, while the plane was still being cleaned. They had to wait a couple of minutes on the tarmac in the Brummie drizzle.

Airborne again, Orla was kind - or brave - enough to let me pour beverages. I was a little nervous. This was a leap of faith on her part. I wouldn't let me serve hot drinks to people on an airplane. Perhaps Aer Arran hadn't seen the part of my CV that listed among my core skills 'an almost preternatural clumsiness'. Miraculously, my service passed without any scalded shoulders or laps - or lawsuits.

On short-haul flights there isn't time to do much other than a run down the aisle with the refreshment trolley. But by the end of my shift I was aware of an occupational hazard of the job. My lips and forehead felt like they were made of crepe paper. Vicky told me that cabin air is notoriously dry, and thinner than air at ground level, to boot. It's rough on your hands, too, as you have to wash them between serving refreshments and other activities.

Last flight of the day was the evening run back to Luton with another full load of 66 - I was in the jump seat again. I could see why you're limited to four flights. All that time spent standing in a dry atmosphere in a cramped space takes it out of you. Back on the ground and through customs, my first port of call was Boots - to buy the manliest tube of facial moisturiser I could find.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime