Many travelers tend to forget that the primary responsibility of flight attendants isn’t to mix your drinks and serve you snacks—it’s ensuring the safety of everyone on board.
Then, two incidents took place this January that captured the attention of flyers everywhere and underscored the critical importance of flight attendants in aviation safety: On January 2, a Japan Airlines plane combusted into flames after colliding with a Coast Guard aircraft on the runway. And a few days later, a door plug flew off an Alaska Airlines flight, leading to a nationwide grounding of Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft.
No passenger lives were lost on either commercial airliner—an incredibly fortunate outcome that's no thanks to luck alone. The Japan Airlines flight attendants managed to successfully evacuate all 367 passengers in 18 minutes before the plane caught fire, even with some exit doors blocked and a failed intercom system. And on the Alaska Airlines flight, a teenager sitting near the gaping hole managed to remain safely in his seat despite having his shirt ripped from his body—likely thanks to his seatbelt (you know, that thing flight attendants give a detailed demonstration on how to fasten properly).
“Last night’s incident could have been worse, but Flight Attendants and Pilots of Alaska 1282 ensured all passengers and crew arrived safely back on the ground,” Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) President Sara Nelson said in a statement following the Alaska Airlines incident. “Flight Attendants are aviation’s first responders. We are trained for emergencies, and we work every flight for aviation safety first and foremost.”
Indeed, flight attendants are constantly protecting passengers in the air and on the ground (even if you don't notice it). When they greet you at the boarding door they’re not just just being friendly—they’re actually selecting “Able Bodied Passengers” (ABP) who can assist crew in an emergency, as well as taking note of people who may need additional support during an evacuation. And the safety briefing on how to use oxygen masks and life vests? You might tune those instructions out, but flight attendants have been trained and tested on every scenario mentioned.
When the time comes for take-off and landing, flight attendants sit on their hands in the jump seat to protect them from unexpected impact that could prevent them from being able to open the emergency exits. At the same time, they’re reviewing emergency procedures before these critical phases of flight so they remain fresh in their mind—a 30-second exercise known as the “silent review.” Mid-flight, although they’re in more of a service mode while manning the beverage cart and passing out snacks, flight attendants are always watching for a passenger in need of assistance, a noise that isn’t right, or that unexpected turbulence which could become a problem.
While the current news cycle is understandably unsettling for many flyers, air travel in America has actually never been safer, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, with major US airlines reporting zero fatal crashes in 15 years—a feat that was previously unimaginable.
As recent events have highlighted, that's in part due to the rigorous safety training of flight attendants. Here's a snapshot of what that training looks like, based on the experience of current and former crew members.
What flight attendant safety training is really like
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), flight attendants cannot legally work on an airplane unless they have “demonstrated to the pilot in command familiarity with the necessary functions to be performed in an emergency or a situation requiring emergency evacuation and is capable of using the emergency equipment installed on that airplane.”
At its core, that means that before any flight attendant takes to the skies they are required to undergo extensive safety training that typically lasts between four and six weeks—plus a recurrent training each year.
Flight attendant training resembles a high-stakes reality show, with each new-hire reminded daily that their employment with the airline is contingent on passing the program. The anxiety in the training room is high: Who will make it? Who will be cut? Any time a pair of in-flight instructors walks into the room, it’s usually to deliver the news that one of the new-hires has been let go. And just like eviction night on TV, the others don’t get to say “good-bye.”
Though the training material can vary from airline to airline, every program must meet the standards set by the FAA; a large portion of the curriculum is dedicated to replicating emergency scenarios and testing flight attendants’ reactions. Each class of recruits is expected to memorize the location and use of emergency equipment on every aircraft type the airline flies. While some airlines have just one aircraft type, others have upwards of ten. Flight attendants are also trained in CPR, self defense, first aid, and most critically, executing emergency evacuations commonly referred to as “door drills.”
During door drills, flight attendant trainees sit in an aircraft simulator on a jump seat next to the emergency exit door, just as they would in real life. As they prepare for landing or take-off, an instructor will announce a randomly selected emergency scenario, ranging from the plane fish-tailing on the runway to a water landing. The instructors can also add in real-life curve-balls during the drill: just before the flight attendant is about to open the emergency exit, they may be told there’s fire on the opposite side of the door, debris blocking the exit, or the door has failed to open. The drill doesn’t end until the evacuation is successfully completed.
Emergency evacuations, like the one perfectly performed by the crew on the Japan Airlines flight, requires flight attendants to assess situations quickly, operate the emergency exits, and guide passengers to safety in a calm and orderly manner. They are trained to keep calm under pressure and communicate, a skill that is invaluable during unexpected incidents. These high-pressure drills are designed to make evacuation procedures second nature—and are a stressful and eye-opening experience for new hires, according to Chicago-based flight attendant Stephen Michaels.
His new hire class “started practicing for door drills the second the material was presented to us,” he tells Condé Nast Traveler. “Everyone has to memorize and scream instructions that would be delivered to passengers in an evacuation and there’s no room for error. One mistake and you’re out.”
While flight attendants are trained to protect their plane’s passengers, sometimes the danger is the passengers themselves. Unruly passenger incidents increased by a whopping 492% in 2021 with nearly 6,000 incidents reported, according to FAA data, a number that has since decreased substantially. Whether due to alleged intoxication, anxiety, or other issues, flight attendants use de-escalation techniques to maintain a safe environment for all onboard. Their training includes conflict resolution, and when necessary, how to implement restraints to prevent harm.
“Our training program saw the local police department come into our classroom and pretend to be unruly passengers,” says Los Angeles-based flight attendant Jenna Ford. “It wasn’t easy, they played the role well and taught us how to handle various situations that came in handy with the recent influx of unruly passenger incidents.”
When all of the above (and more) is taught, learned, and tested, the airline then presents their standards for in-flight customer, beverage, and meal service. And finally, after a comprehensive exam, the new-hire graduates. They earn their wings, pass another test on their first flight called their “initial operating experience” or I.O.E., then are cleared to take to the skies on their own. But safety training doesn’t stop there—even the most veteran flight attendants are required to return to ground training each year for a refresher. The program is changed annually to strengthen knowledge around specific emergencies they may encounter, reapply their skills, and review situations that have occurred in the past year and the lessons learned from those events.
I hope the next time you're greeted by a flight attendant while boarding a flight, you remember the depth of their responsibility. As we’ve seen in just the past month, a flight attendant’s dedication to training and safety plays a critical role in keeping our skies, and you, safe.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler