A couple months ago, United asked me if I’d be interested in coming down to Houston to do a day of flight attendant training. As you can imagine, I jumped at the chance. What United arranged was a day of International Service Training, and it was a fascinating look at how the airline prepares its flight attendants to
do battle with serve its customers.
International Service Training is a single-day course that’s given to all new hires and any current flight attendants that haven’t flown internationally in at least 2 years. The goal is to teach flight attendants what they need to know to work a long haul international trip. The focus is almost entirely on the premium cabin with most of the training centering around the meal service. Today I’m going to walk through my impressions of the day. Tomorrow I’ll zero in on the details of the meal service.
[Full disclosure: United provided my roundtrip flights from Austin to Houston]
Where the Magic Happens
If you think being a flight attendant is glamorous, that’s certainly not the vibe being put off by United’s primary flight attendant training facility. The squat, decades-old building is a nondescript former catering facility that sits east of the terminal area at Houston/Intercontinental airport. Before the merger, this was where Continental trained its flight attendants. Today, it continues in that role for United’s new hires. It also serves as the location for Houston-based flight attendants to get their annual 2-day recurrent training, or as United calls it, continuing qualification (CQ).
When I walked into the building around 8:30 in the morning, it was a hub of activity. Flight attendant training ebbs and flows with the fortune of the airline, and right now, it is at a high point with classes of 35 to 50 people starting weekly.
New hires come here to spend six days a week for five straight weeks in training. When they aren’t training, they’re studying for the next exam. It’s an intense five weeks, but surprisingly there’s only an 8 percent attrition rate.
When I arrived, flight attendant class 1521 was getting toward the end of its fourth week in training. United and Continental flight attendants are still operating as two separate workgroups, and there’s been an imbalance in needs. While the Continental subsidiary (or sCO, as it’s styled) has been hiring, sUA hasn’t. In fact, class 1521 holds the distinction of being the first sUA flight attendant class in 7 years. The class is split in two for some of the more intimate training sessions, and half the class was going through International Service Training that day. I and two others would join them.
Walking into a small room, I was surprised to see several rows of old school Continental BusinessFirst seats lined up in a 2-2-2 configuration. These seats have long been gone from the fleet, but they still live on as service trainers. Training is really split into two big chunks. There’s the safety side and the service side. Today was a service day.
Most of the seats were filled, but they had held a couple back for us interlopers. I took my place in the first row on the outside aisle on the right side. There appeared to be an army of trainers to help get the class through the day.
The Importance of Appearance
To start, these future flight attendants had to go through an appearance check. They wouldn’t even get their final fittings for their uniforms until the next day, but they still had to be dressed appropriately in their own clothes. The rules are mind-numbingly specific. Woman can have one necklace, one bracelet, two rings per hand, and earrings can’t be larger than a dime. Shoes have to be clean, neat, and polished. Visible tattoos are not allowed. A watch is required. If hair is longer than shoulder length, it must be pulled back in a way where it won’t fall forward. The few men in the class have similarly strict rules.
During the appearance check, as you can see in the 23 second video above, a trainer closely inspects each trainee. Nobody fails, as you’d expect in a group that’s nearly 80 percent finished with training. I, however, would have failed. My wrist was watch-free (and that very well may have been the least of my violations).
Beginning with the VERY Basic
Kristi Lacafta, a Texas native with a bit of a drawl, stepped up to the front to kick things off. The first hour was spent going through Powerpoint slides as part of the introduction.
The curriculum was basic. We learned about the different classes of service in the international world, GlobalFirst and BusinessFirst. There was then discussion about Star Alliance and competitors. (United, by the way, consider American and Delta its competition. There wasn’t mention of the foreign carriers.)
As the slides continued on, training alternated between big picture and tiny detail. On one hand, the flight attendants were told to freshen up regularly because on international travel, they not only represented the brand but the United States. On the other hand, there was excruciating detail on exactly how to position the name tag on the uniform.
The uniform itself is a complex thing. There are choices, at least for women, on whether to wear pants, skirts, or dresses. Formality rules the day. If they aren’t wearing pants, they have to wear pantyhose. There are even rules about when they can wear which parts of the uniform. After takeoff through the meal, for example, they have to wear their serving garments. Some flight attendants even bring different shoes to wear on the ground versus in the air.
The details were mind-numbing. Of course, each flight attendant has plenty of reference material to help keep it all straight. The days of paper manuals are long gone. These days, United flight attendants are handed a programmed iPhone 6 Plus during training. The airline calls it a “Link” and it’s loaded up with all the info any flight attendant could need. They just have to figure out where everything is in the first place.
Portrait of a New Hire
During the first break, I began chatting with my seatmate, who we’ll call Michelle. Michelle was in her early 20s and had worked a desk job before. She was quiet and thoughtful, and she took this job seriously. I asked why she had decided to become a flight attendant, and she said that her “spiritual gift was service.”
Michelle was from a tiny Texas town near the Louisiana border, and she had actually applied to American before. But in her first interview she was nervous and knew she wasn’t getting called back. It was only in May when the opportunity to apply to United came up. She jumped on it, going through the video interview where she had to film herself answering pre-recorded questions. This time she had no trouble and a mere two months later, we were sitting next to each other.
For our next session, Cheryl Waldrop stepped to the front. Cheryl seemed to be born to train. In fact, she starred in at least one of the training videos we watched during the day. She started in the late 1990s with United and had barely avoided being furlough after 9/11. She seemed like the kind of flight attendant who could give perfect service, but she could also be very firm. I wouldn’t want to cross her.
Where Wine is the Most Important Product
This session was supposed to be about the onboard product, but it jumped around in strange ways. There was no talk about the different seats, even within the same class of service, but there was talk about wifi coverage areas. (According to the training session, long haul wifi works everywhere except over China, the North Pole, and, oddly enough, Southern New Mexico.)
The bulk of this session was actually spent on wine. More people drink wine internationally than anything else, save for water. A video was shown to demonstrate how to open a bottle of wine. (Seriously.) Then we were told about which types of wines are served on which flights. This went on for a surprising amount of time.
After wine, we moved into a chronological flow. We learned about pre-departure beverages and how on international flights, there are special carts for those meant to be used on the ground vs in the air (it’s a taxation thing). Then we went into menus and found a little bit of chivalry hidden inside. If a man and a woman are sitting together, you always hand the menu to the woman first. This is the case for taking orders and serving food as well.
After a short break, it was time to start the actual meal service. I’ll get into detail about that three-hour experience tomorrow.
Avoiding a Post-Lunch Nap
You’d think that after spending hours eating, it might be time for something that involved a little physical activity, but you’d be wrong. The flight attendants settled in for an hour talking about required documentation when they travel. I’m not kidding. If any one of them stayed awake, I’d be amazed, but we ducked out to do something else.
We were taken on a tour around the building, looking at the various evacuation testing facilities including an actual 737 fuselage. There are several doors for different aircraft so flight attendants could practice opening them. (Most were being used for exams while we were there.) Then we got to play with life jackets.
When we got back, the group had moved on to the multicultural awareness session. For a global airline, this was surprisingly incomplete. It only touched on five countries, in fact, with Japan leading the way followed by China, Israel, India, and Nigeria. That was it.
A Brief Mention of Coach
The last session of the day was dedicated to international economy. Would it surprise you if I told you this took about half an hour? To be fair, the reality is that international economy service isn’t much different from domestic service. So there weren’t too many differences to highlight in this particular class. The main focus was on the meal service itself.
Final Thoughts Before Landing
In the end, it all went by with a blur. I could only imagine how overwhelmed each trainee must feel after days upon days of learning. I quite frankly can’t imagine anyone retaining this information, but flight attendants simply have to re-learn it once in the air. Only then they have to battle turbulence and angry passengers.
It was fascinating to see just how much attention is paid to process here. There was more focus on process than actual customer service. With talk about how flight attendants “represent the brand,” I wanted to know what the United brand stood for. I was told they teach that on another day.
As I headed to the terminal for my flight home, I couldn’t help but think just how bad I’d be at this job. The process part was easy. I’m confident I could perform the duties as taught. But trying to do that with a bunch of angry passengers while the plane bounces around in turbulence? Oh hell no.
Going through a day of training does make you realize how much more goes into a flight attendant’s job than a casual observer might imagine. And it’s precisely that volume that makes me wonder if five weeks is enough. Then again, you could train a flight attendant for a year and likely never prepare them for all the insanity they’ll encounter during their years of flying the not-always-so friendly skies.