Flight attendants seen as safety and political activists

 - October 5, 2006, 5:45 AM

Beau Altman’s retrospective put the profession of business aviation flight attendant into perspective at the 10th Annual Flight Attendants Conference in Atlanta in June.

Altman was among those who attended the first conference in San Antonio in 1996. But his audiovisual journey addressed the challenge that the flight attendant has faced, and continues to face, since the mid-1920s.

Altman began his retrospective with Boeing Air Transport’s 1930 decision to hire eight nurses as stewardesses on a three-month trial basis. The first flight departed on May 15, 1930, from Oakland en route to Chicago with Ellen Church aboard. It opened a new door in aviation for women, but Altman’s description of the job requirements brought groans and occasional laughter from his listeners.

Applicants were expected to be friendly, single, younger than 25 and to possess a good figure, be slim and physically fit, have a pretty face and stand no more than 5 feet 4 inches tall. “So things haven’t changed that much,” whispered one flight attendant.

On the job, they were expected to be on hand to render “a rigid military salute” to the captain and copilot as they boarded and deplaned, and to check with them regarding their personal luggage and to place it on board promptly. They were to brief the passengers about smoking regulations and serve food and drinks. Finally, they were required to help push the aircraft into the hangar at the end of each flight and assist in cleaning the cabin. All this for the remarkable sum of $125 per 100 flight hours.

Altman, now a training consultant and provider in Olympia, Wash., admitted that the status of the flight attendant has changed in 75 years. “Or has it?” he asked. He concedes that no small amount of credit for any change goes to groups such as the Flight Attendants Committee of NBAA.

Tracing the beginning of NBAA’s interest in the role of the business aviation flight attendant, Altman recalled the first convention drew 80 people and noted that the committee has flourished in the years since.

The Flight Attendants Committee started as part of the Operations Committee. In 2000 it became a full committee in its own right, growing and adding its own subcommittees to address issues from training to catering.

In 2001 the committee established a scholarship fund, and sponsors donated some $13,000 for scholarships for nine recipients. This year, the 41 winners shared scholarships valued at $50,000.

The committee has pushed to define more clearly the training requirements for business aviation flight attendants in Part 91 and Part 135 operations, resulting in NBAA’s issuing an official stance in 2002 regarding employment of trained flight attendants by its members.

While Altman sees progress in efforts by corporate flight attendants for professional validation, he makes it clear that more is needed. “After all,” he said with a gentle hint of sarcasm, “it’s only been 75 years.”

As a keynote speaker, NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen noted the role of the flight attendants as “safety activists” but also emphasized their role as political activists.

“NBAA was founded to ensure access to airports and to airspace, and the threat to [business aviation] access is as real today as it has ever been,” he said.

“The airlines now see us as a competitor,” explained Bolen, saying that the airlines have been promoting the idea that “airlines pay too much and business aviation pays too little.” Their solution, he continued, is to shift $3 billion of the cost from airlines to business aviation in the form of user fees.

He urged attendees to take advantage of NBAA’s new “Contact Congress” Web site (www.nbaa.org/ action). The site became active in March with a link allowing the user to introduce himself to a member of Congress. In early June links were added to allow the user to send letters to members of Congress in opposition to user fees for general aviation and to highway bill provisions that include language altering procedures for payment of federal taxes on jet fuel and limiting deductions.

In 2003 the committee began actively courting flight engineers, technicians and mechanics, many of whom also fill the role of flight attendant on long international trips.

According to Mike Hesslink, the new committee chair, approximately one-third of crewmembers serving as flight attendants are flight engineers. “It only makes sense that we encourage them to take a more active role in the flight attendant committee and to attend the conferences,” said Hesslink.

Hesslink replaces Virginia Lippincott of the Pfizer flight department.

Also at the show, AirCare Crew Support of Olympia, Wash. released the results of its flight attendant survey. The survey was conducted over a period of 80 days, during which 107 flight attendants responded to questions ranging from salaries to responsibilities. Of those, 73 described their job as full-time; 34 had worked as a flight attendant in corporate aviation for one to five years; and another 34 had worked in the industry for five to 10 years.

As might be expected, full-time flight attendants fared far better financially than their contract counterparts. Of 76 full-time respondents, 31.6 percent claimed an annual salary of more than $75,000. None of the 36 contract flight attendants reported annual earnings of more than $75,000, and only two had annual earnings between $71,000 and $75,000.

As it has in the past several years, aircraft catering played a major role at the conference. Sixteen caterers and catering vendors sponsored an evening “Flight Attendant Appreciation Extravaganza” at the Southern Center for International Studies, with a menu that included smoked trout, crawfish cakes, baked praline ham with sweet potato biscuits, peach cobblers and chocolate Chambord fondue.

This year’s flight attendants conference drew a record 197 registered attendees, compared with 160 last year. More good news, according to NBAA’s Jay Evans, was that more than 40 of those attending were at the conference for the first time.

Next year’s flight attendants conference is scheduled for June in Denver. Details will be available on the NBAA Web site at www.nbaa.org.