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Q&A: A Virgin Atlantic flight attendant explains the secrets of flying

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Flying may have lost some of its glamour, but it retains an air of mystery — starting with how a 300-ton metal tube can soar like a bird in the sky. To crack open some of these secrets, we turned to Laura Hutcheson, a veteran flight attendant with Virgin Atlantic who was willing to tell all — or nearly all.

At takeoff and landing, passengers are told to turn off cellphones and other electronic gadgets. What’s the real reason for that?

We ask all passengers to turn off their mobile phones and any other electronic devices as the signal could possibly interfere with the navigation systems.

On the runway, should the window shades be up or down?

For takeoff and landing, the window blinds should be raised. This is so that the crew can assess the outside conditions in case of an emergency such as an evacuation and, if necessary, redirect passengers to an alternative exit. It is also to make sure that passengers’ eyes are adjusted to the conditions outside, whether light or dark.

During landings, a crew member often reminds passengers to remain seated as the plane reaches the terminal, but then the seat belt sign dings off a few seconds later. Is this a way to control crowds?

The seat belt signs are turned off by the captain when all of the aircraft’s engines have been fully powered down and the aircraft is securely parked. Although the aircraft is at a standstill and passengers believe that it is safe to get up and start getting their bags, the aircraft could still move unexpectedly, which could result in passengers injuring themselves.

Why are passengers allowed to bring on carry-on bags that are obviously over the legal size? Can’t the crew force them to check their bags?

Both the ground staff and cabin crew make every attempt to ensure that hand luggage brought onto the aircraft is compliant with the size and weight restrictions. Obviously, some slip through the net during the check-in process. But the crew is vigilant at the boarding door and has the ability to get oversized hand luggage tagged and placed in the hold up until the point when the aircraft or cargo doors are closed.

What do all the bell sounds in the cabin mean?

There are many chimes in the cabin that mean a variety of things, such as:

• Passenger call bell.

• Toilet call bell.

• Smoke alarm.

•Interphone call (the onboard phone system that the crew and pilots use to communicate with one another).

A double chime and flash of the seat belt sign means that takeoff or landing is imminent, and it is the final sign from the captain for the crew to take their seats.

What does “arm doors and cross-check” mean?

“Doors to manual” means that the aircraft doors are set back to manual mode on landing. When the crew closes the doors on departure, the doors are set to automatic mode, so that if they are opened, the inflatable slide will automatically be deployed. On landing, when the aircraft is taxiing onto the stand, the doors need to be reset to manual mode so that the slide won’t inflate. “Cross-check” is a double-check of this, so each crew member checks their door and the door opposite them.

How heavy are the meal and beverage carts?

Some carts, such as the drinks and duty-free carts, are extremely heavy, as they contain items such as glass bottles. This is why we always maneuver them with great care down the aisles.

After takeoff, when can the flight attendants remove their seat belts and walk around the cabin?

If it is safe to do so, the flight desk turns the seat belt signs off at 10,000 feet. If the captain believes that there’s a chance of turbulence, he will keep the seat belt signs on, but if he believes it is safe for the crew to move around, he will call the flight service manager and release the crew to start preparing for services.

Can the flight crew take naps while in flight?

Our working hours are strictly controlled, and on certain long flights we are required to have in-flight rest. This is taken in bunks in the crew rest area in shifts decided by the flight service manager. This ensures that the cabin always has a minimum number of crew on duty to perform all services and safety-related duties.

Do you find many lost items in the seats and overhead compartments? What are the most common and the most unusual objects?

Books, reading glasses, mobile phones and iPods are definitely the most common. We have also had an artificial limb, an urn containing someone’s ashes, a movie script and even a wheelchair that turned out to belong to the cast of “Glee.”

Is the Mile-High Club a myth?

I have had a few occasions of passengers getting overly friendly in their seats or at the bar after a few drinks. We monitor everyone’s alcohol intake and sometimes have to remind people to maintain appropriate behavior in the cabin.

What are the best parts of the job, and the toughest?

The best aspects of the job are:

• The travel: Virgin Atlantic flies to a variety of destinations, and I have been lucky to have visited some amazing cities and have had incredible travel experiences around the world. I feel homesick for New York if I don’t get a trip there for a few weeks.

•The people: I get to work with people from diverse backgrounds, but who are all so passionate about the job they do, the Virgin brand and our customers.

• The variety: I only intended to stay at Virgin for a year, and yet 10 years later I’m still in the skies, and no two days at work are the same.

The hardest part of the job is the tiredness! Night flights are physically demanding, and you still need to be alert, well-groomed and performing to the best of your ability despite having had no sleep and feeling the effects of the dreaded jet lag.

How do you manage jet leg?

People often ask if you get used to jet lag; the simple answer is no! But you learn how to deal with it in your own way. I always try to have a three-hour sleep when I get home after a flight and then try to get some fresh air, drink lots of water and eat fresh food before going to bed at a regular time.

How do you protect your skin and overall health on long hauls?

I drink as much water as I can onboard, a minimum of 1.5 liters per flight. I notice the difference when I don’t. Lip balm and hand cream are also a must.

It’s difficult to eat your five-a-day when you’re away, as fruit and vegetables aren’t always easy to come by, particularly in the U.S. when you can’t take fresh fruit or vegetables into the country, due to agricultural regulations. I try to track down smoothies and fresh soup, and always take a multivitamin.

What do you never fly without?

All of my products need to be able to be decanted into small bottles or come in packaging under 100 milliliters, because I often only take hand luggage on trips and there are the security restrictions on liquids at U.K. and other international airports. The last thing I need is security confiscating my night cream!

I have a silk travel pillowcase that I put over my pillow in hotel rooms and whilst I’m taking my rest in the crew bunks. When I come back to work for the last service, I don’t have pillow lines on my face and the passengers don’t know that I’ve had a little sleep!

Hair spray and red lipstick, of course.

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