A whole new respect for cabin crew

London Heathrow to San Francisco, Monday 16 January 2012

It might be fairly easy to imagine the life of a long haul flight cabin crew member to be endlessly glamourous and constantly thrilling. They get to travel to all manner of exotic locations — Monday is Shanghai and Thursday is Auckland, before they reach Bogota on Sunday — not to mention that they get paid to do this. But really, I’ve a sneaking suspicion that it’s a long way from sipping mojitos and prancing about in Gucci shades.

They’re on their feet for an unholy number of hours and they have to deal with us: stressed, grouchy, demanding, rude, and pedantic passengers.

The people sitting in the two metre square vicinity of my seat on my flight from Heathrow to San Francisco yesterday embodied every trait that is undesirable in someone flying for eleven hours.

First, we had Mr and Mrs Check-in Late and Complain About Our Seats. I’m sure that airlines don’t really go out of their way to split up couples, but if you check in late and the flight is full, you have to take what you’re given. Put it this way, you’re on the flight. If it’s full, the chances are that there were a handful of people that were bumped. So please don’t whine and mewl that you’re separated from each other by a few seats. You could, you know, always ask the people sitting around you politely if one of them wouldn’t mind moving.

Then we have Mr I-don’t-want-this. I always experience a slight frisson of expectation when meals start to be served on planes. I can’t exactly say that it’s because I’m relishing the delights of ice-cold salad and the soggy mushroom-whatever-it-is that I’m due to attempt to eat in a vaguely dignified fashion from a tray table that’s at the wrong height with plastic cutlery, or because of the prospect of having to re-stack the collection of foil containers and plastic packaging in a Krypton Factor-esque game when I’m finished. No, I’m just waiting for my pre-ordered vegetarian meal to make it to me at all. Too often my meal has been forgotten or mysteriously given to someone else and I’ve been left with crackers and cheese to last me from London to Chicago.

I don’t expect a menu, and I don’t expect the chefs from Wild Honey to have knocked up softly poached quails eggs with asparagus and foaming hollandaise for me, either. Something vaguely edible and without any meat in it is great. Thank you. This is cattle class, after all. Not to mention a plane, with weight and space constraints.

This means that, no, Mr I-don’t-want-this, there isn’t a different version of your pre-ordered special meal hanging around for you on the plane just in case you fancy chicken instead of lamb. And declaring ‘I don’t want lamb’ isn’t going to change it, either. You asked to be catered for specially, and you got it.

Finally, we have Mr and Ms Disorganised. (Or: vegetarian meals should be requested in advance.) It would be absolutely wonderful if vegetarian meals were carried on planes as standard, so instead of being asked ‘Chicken or beef?’ It’d be ‘Chicken, beef, or veggie?’ But space is at a premium and weight needs to be kept to a minimum, which means that anything that deviates even vaguely — a tiny, teeny, weeny bit — from the norm (because let’s face it, vegetarianism isn’t exactly a concept from the Planet Zog) needs to be accommodated on an individual basis. It ensures that vegetarians get their meals (allegedly, in some cases), vegans don’t have to starve, Muslims don’t commit a sin by eating something that isn’t Halal, and Hindus can rest assured that nothing in their meal contains beef. And the airline needs to know this. Don’t rock up and expect them to have two vegetarian meals waiting for you if you’ve not ordered them, and then pout when there aren’t any. Trust me, pouting does not operate time machines and neither does it enable flight attendants to magic meals out of pressurised, recycled cabin air.

None of this is aerodynamics, people. That’s down to the captain and he’s flying the plane.

When the flight attendant reached me, proffering the much-anticipated glass of wine, I asked him how he was doing. After a moment of shock whilst he processed that someone might be interested in him and not harrying him, he smiled, said not too bad, and gave me two miniature plastic bottles of Spanish Tempranillo-Garnacha instead of one.

There’s a moral in there somewhere.