Virgin Atlantic flight attendant training: What it takes to put flair in the air

November 4, 2011

“Attention, attention, we are making an emergency landing on water. Stay calm,” barked Matt Whipp, a Virgin Atlantic training manager, with urgent authority. “Put on your seat belts and life jackets. Feet in front, heads down. Feet in front, heads down.”

The planeful of passengers quickly followed orders, slipping on their safety gear and folding their bodies into crash position. But for a fleeting second, I froze. Not out of paralyzing fear, but out of concern for my hair. I didn’t want to muss the towering masterpiece, a veritable blond meringue, that topped off my air hostess uniform.

High-flying glamour is back on the radar, fueled in part by the new ABC show “Pan Am,” which focuses on flight attendants who work the airplane aisles like catwalks. Of course, the program is fiction. For fact, I’d popped over to London and Virgin Atlantic’s training center, where new flight attendants are minted and spritzed with glitz.

“Most of the girls are quite glamorous,” said Laura Mansell, an 11-year flight attendant with the airline. “We like dressing up.” The men, who are 30 percent of the crew, are equally debonair.

For a full day, I rotated through classes for everything from safety to grooming (the birthplace of my beehive) and observed the new hires as they role-played dramas light and dark. I learned about safety procedures and meal service, and discovered the redemptive powers of red lipstick. And even though I wouldn’t earn a pair of silver wings, the airline’s version of a diploma, I would take home a better understanding of the rigors and demands of the job — plus a lusty head of hair.

Virgin Atlantic is a rare peacock in the airline industry, which over the years has morphed into a flock of mostly tired old birds. The British company, founded 27 years ago by swashbuckling entrepreneur Richard Branson, defies the norm, encapsulating a golden age of air travel when elegance and professionalism prevailed.

“The thing that differentiates Virgin Atlantic from other airlines is what we call the ‘Virgin flair,’ ” said Helen Howe, a safety and security training instructor I met on the flight to London. “It’s a can-do attitude, a willingness to smile,” even when things go horribly wrong.

Although the airline was an early innovator (it was first in the world to offer seat-back entertainment), its true standouts are the flight attendants. Dashing in red suits and confident by nature, the women look as if they could pose for a glossy one minute and administer CPR the next. Plait one another’s hair, then defuse a volatile passenger. If “Pan Am” needs extras, the studio’s agents should call VA’s agents.

Because of the airline’s glossy style and reputation, positions are in high demand. The company receives reams of applications (16,000 in the last recruitment drive) but, like an Ivy League college, accepts only a small percentage (500).

I don’t know whether I would have made the cut, but at the very least, I was going to look the part, from hair to toe.

The 51 / 2-week training is divided into four sections: cabin safety and security, service, AvMed (aviation medicine) and grooming. The course starts with 12 days of hypothetical harrowing situations, the kind that end up as headlines. The beauty king and queen portion falls in Week 4.

I, however, did not follow the proper order, much to my glee. After rolling in from an overnight flight, I seriously needed a new face; my other one had melted somewhere over the Atlantic.

The primping lessons are integral to the Virgin Atlantic look, a polished style with a retro streak — like a ’50s housewife gone corporate.

“We are taught hair, makeup and how to wear the uniform with pride,” Howe said. “No matter what age or culture we are, we all kind of look the same. We’re all the Virgin Atlantic brand.”

If you’ve flown out of Dulles International Airport in the past 15 years, you might have stumbled across the Virgin Atlantic darlings, who stand out like hot peppers in a fallow field. The women wear red fitted blazers and almost-pencil skirts. A multicolor scarf fluffs out from the neck of their white short-sleeve blouses. On the ground, they don saucy red pumps, which upon takeoff are swapped out for more sensible black heels. The men are more restrained in charcoal gray suits with a vest and a white button-down shirt. A single pop of color cascades from their collar: a silky tie as purple as passion. (Secret tidbit: For safety reasons, the tie is a clip-on.)

Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice a whiff of minimalist austerity. Women may accessorize only with a pair of silver studs, one ring on each hand, a watch on one wrist and a bracelet on the other (no bangles or charms). No necklaces allowed. Costume jewelry is banned. For makeup, blush, mascara and red lipstick are required; apple cheeks are preferred over dramatic slashes. Women’s bangs may not dip below the eyebrows, and ponytails can’t soar above the crown. Men’s beards must stop at the jawline, and sideburns must remain north of the earlobe. No primary-color hair dyes on either sex.

To demonstrate the Cinderella transformation, the fairy godmothers of beauty, hair and fashion took charge of my face, my locks and my style. First came Mim Allgood, a sprite with a sunny disposition who dusted my cheeks and eyes with tawny powders, coated my lashes in squid-ink black and smeared my lips with a red so bright, I could have stopped traffic simply by puckering.

“Use feathery strokes,” she advised for lipstick patrol, “and don’t take it to the edge or you’ll look like the Joker.”

The department’s experts track current fashion trends, which they pass along to the staff in a photo-heavy magazine called “Runway” and with mood boards, a collage of au courant styles. Currently in vogue: “Black Swan”-inspired buns and side ’dos, boho-chic front plaits, singer Adele’s bouffant and, of course, anything Kate Middleton.

“I love a hairpiece,” said Helen Kavanagh, the company’s 17-year hair stylist, as she toyed with a synthetic spray of blond hair attached to a clip. The connoisseur of coif sculpted my hair to astronomical heights, twisting the strands like origami and locking them down with so many pins that my hair could have withstood gale-force winds. She tested a variety of styles, including a side chignon, a high pony and a soft bun that involved a large sponge doughnut.

“The list is endless,” she enthused. “We could go on and on.”

She finally selected a swooping, swirling pouf that required its own airspace. I hoped that the airline had an extra oxygen mask for my hair.

On the job, the flight attendants will use about 40 percent of their training; Whipp hopes they never have to employ the other 60 percent.

“Most people don’t see this side of the crew,” he said, referring to the emergency preparations. “We’re very good at disguising this other side. But we are more than just tea and coffee.”

The service classes focus on meals and beverages, as well as on customer relations, which in many cases translates to passenger appeasement. The 18 students, fitted into their uniforms, sat in a large square soaking up a lesson on disarmament. “Get down to their level,” said the instructor. “If they are irate and speaking in a loud, quick voice, don’t match their tone. Calm them down.” This technique might ring familiar to many; it’s often used by kindergarten teachers and parents at Toys R Us.

Many of the recruits are prepared for such intransigence, having previously worked in fields populated by difficult people. Before Virgin Atlantic, Heather Topham was a prison guard. Johanne Williams was involved in running a bar. “I’ll take the angry ones; you take the inebriated ones,” Topham joked.

Steve Pipe spent three years as a police officer before applying to the airline. “Training is intense, but in a good way. You have so much to learn: evacuation, dangerous goods leaking, fire in the toilet,” said the 25-year-old, whose inaugural flight is to Dubai on Nov. 9. “I’m looking forward to security and restraint, because I quite enjoyed that in my other job.”

Unless a trainee pushed a roasted chestnut cart as an earlier vocation, few will be immediately nimble with the food and beverage trolley. The kitchenette on wheels is cumbersome, especially when fully loaded with wine bottles and duty-free items.

The class gathered inside the mock fuselage, one of the more realistic classroom settings. The instructor outlined the steps of meal service: Pull the cart from behind, so that your face is prominent, not your backside. Park two or three rows ahead of the first passenger you plan to serve. Kneel down to the passenger’s level and ask their preference — chicken, beef or fish. Remove the tray and place a roll on top of the entree, to warm it up. Hand the food to the traveler, then move on to the next diner. And smile. Always smile.

During my practice run down the narrow aisle, a wave of stage fright hit me. So many eyes were watching me. The cart, filled with fake food, wasn’t heavy, yet it wobbled. Or maybe I was wobbly. I wanted to falsely announce a halt in meal service due to turbulence. Instead, I touched my hair and carried on.

I was still eating my bowl of couscous, a late lunch, when Stewart Turner suffered a seizure. His body stiffened and slid halfway down his airplane seat. The dummy sitting on his left was useless.

No one jumped up to save him, so a young student named Lucy Darby was assigned to his case.

Following protocol, Darby timed the seizure at 20 seconds. Turner, a Virgin Atlantic instructor when awake, was now unconscious. Darby called for help, asking another crew member for an oxygen tank.

“Can you hear me?” she asked Turner. She shook him, then turned him on his side. She checked his breathing, then fitted the oxygen mask over his face. She then searched his body for a medical bracelet, finding one on his ankle. It read “diabetic epileptic.” Her assistant jotted down the information on a medical form.

“Well done. That was just lovely,” said instructor Clair Norden, as Turner rose from his unconscious state.

“I was worried those chairs were going to fall over,” said Turner, as he reclaimed the silver fox wig that had tumbled off during the exercise.

Turner shouldn’t have been too concerned about the seats crashing down and bumping his noggin. The next lesson was on head injuries.

Props are key to the training. In the medical care classroom, the students performed CPR on plastic dolls; I successfully breathed life into Annie, a genderless torso. Triplet babies rested in a tangle on the floor. On the walls, posters explained different medical conditions.

One of the most thrilling spaces, in a theme-parkish way, contained plane parts and equipment bits, such as rows of seats, tables of torches (flashlights in American English), fuselages (or rigs), a raft and multiple doors. Security-theme scenarios were staged in this den of deconstruction.

For example, the exit door I unlocked with a simple turn of the metal handle was a simulacrum of an airplane portal. FYI: It’s no harder to push open than a department store door on a windy day. I was also able to “arm doors and cross-check,” an act as satisfying as yelling “Thar she blows” on a whale-watching tour.

After our evacuation, Whipp walked over to the legendary slide, the one I hope never to see in real action. (The former flight attendant has never experienced an evacuation; the most common disturbances, he said, are passenger-caused, such as sickness and drunken behavior.) I craned my neck to see the top of the gray inflatable slide, 17 feet up.

To avoid puncturing the material, I had to remove my high heels and don soft blue booties. I hiked up my skirt and tucked it inside a garage mechanic’s coveralls. In my motley attire, I climbed up the stairs and sat on the edge of the chute. Before pushing off, I sternly warned myself not to scream “wheee” on the descent. (An “oh my goodness” did happen to escape.)

I flew down without a bump, then took a short hop to full standing position. I asked Whipp if I could go again. After my second trip, I crawled out of my outer shell, pulled down my skirt and crammed my feet back into my red pumps. After nearly six hours of training, my feet were starting to swell, and my suit looked slightly disheveled. My hair was keeling over.

“You look like you’re halfway through a flight to Hong Kong,” Whipp remarked.

His advice for the second leg of my imaginary journey: “Just put on a little lippie.”

Andrea Sachs (not the one who wears Prada) has been writing for Travel since 2000. She travels near (Ellicott City, Jersey Shore) and far (Burma, Namibia, Russia), and finds adventure no matter the mileage. She is all packed for the Moon or North Korea, whichever opens first.
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