By G. David Doran
Imagine this: You're giving a dinner party at 44,000 feet. The elegantly appointed cabin of the eight-seat Dassault Falcon 2000 jet fills with the tantalizing aroma of gourmet foods as you pour fine wine for the CEO of a multinational corporation. Crystal and china dinnerware clatter softly in the background as the pilot turns the plane into final approach at a private jetport in Palm Beach, Washington, D.C., or Tokyo.
It may sound like an episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," but these are the typical work conditions for a corporate flight attendant serving in today's business aviation industry.
If you currently work as a flight attendant for a commercial airline, you might be tempted to think that your years of in-flight service experience would make you an ideal addition to the crew of one of these flying limousines. But comparing the two careers would be like "comparing apples and oranges," says Susan Friedenberg, a Philadelphia-based flight attendant with 38 years of commercial experience topped off with 23 years of corporate flying aboard jets owned by such companies as American Standard Co.
"When you fly commercially, you're trained to be out in the cabin, talking to the customers," she says. "On a corporate jet, there is a completely different mindset. You're there to be seen and not heard. You're hearing things, confidential things because, really, these jets are flying executive offices. You need to know when it's OK to interrupt, how to camouflage yourself in a cabin until you are needed."
The skill set of a corporate flight attendant is also completely different.
"From the time you're given the trip by the company's flight dispatcher, you have to design the meal, order it from the catering company, and then present it in an appealing way to your guests," says Friedenberg. "You have to do a lot more thinking. If you have a six-hour flight for seven people, you have to calculate how much and what kind of meals and such are appropriate. You also have to know the personal preferences of your passengers, such as wines or food allergies. Everything in the cabin is your personal responsibility, from the newspapers to the flowers in the bud vase in the bathroom."
To help those interested in changing their career track from commercial to corporate, or starting a new career as a corporate flight attendant, Friedenberg teaches a specialized training course that covers nearly every aspect of a corporate flight attendant's duties, from trip preparation to RON (remain overnight) responsibilities and beyond.
While three hours of the nine-hour course are devoted to on-board service issues such as dealing with airport catering services and preparing multi-course meals in a cramped galley space, Friedenberg does not gloss over the business aspects of the job. Since most corporate flight attendants begin their career by working on a contract basis, a good part of the day is spent preparing trainees to function as independent contractors.
"I teach them how to market themselves specifically for this industry, how to get a resume together and how to manage themselves as a business, because when you work as a contractor you are ultimately responsible for knowing things like how to create proper records for each company you work for, IRS rules and regulations for contractors, and so on," she says. "I find that these are things that people really wouldn't know unless they had experience at it already."
Courses are held throughout the year in Dallas, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles, with a London-based course scheduled for August 2001.
Of course, this isn't the only training course available. There are several private companies that offer flight attendant training, including FACTS Training International, Inflight Excellence and FlightSafety International.
Working for several years on a contract basis may help smooth the road to becoming a full-time flight attendant for a corporate flight service, but Friedenberg warns her trainees that gaining that necessary experience by working with as many as 20 different employers each year will require them to bend over backwards (almost literally in the cabins of some of the smaller aircraft) to adapt to the personal preferences of an ever-changing manifest of VIPs.
"Flying contract is the hardest thing to do and do well because you have to be very much like a chameleon," she says. "To succeed, you would have to wear a hat for every corporate personality. In one month you could be on seven different aircraft types, keeping seven CEO's happy, as well as their wives, the maintenance staff, and the flight crews. You have to be a woman or man for all seasons."
And situations. While Part 91 of the FAR (The FAA general regulations governing flight operations) do not currently require emergency-trained personnel on board business aircraft with less than 19 seats, Friedenberg firmly believes that emergency-trained flight attendants are far more attractive to employers. She recommends that all current and potential flight attendants take the in-flight safety and first-aid courses offered by companies such as Facts Training, FlightSafety, and Inflight Excellence.
As with any occupation, not everyone is born to be a corporate flight attendant. Besides the days that can last up to 14 hours spent entirely on your feet, there are some decidedly non-glamorous aspects of the job, such as grooming the aircraft in preparation for the flight. Friedenberg advises those who may be a little unsure about this particular career track to forgo training for now and concentrate on gaining life experience.
"I receive emails from 18 year olds who are a little confused about what my training offers, and I try to coach them into going to college, and tell them that there will always be aircraft to work on, and that this would not be the best way to start their career," she says. "Go to college, work for a commercial airline, and then take another look to see if this is what you really want."
For those who attain the necessary experience and training to become a full-time corporate flight attendant, the rewards, both financial and spiritual, can be fairly impressive. According to Friedenberg, a full-time flight attendant based on the East or West coast can make anywhere from $45,000 to $60,000 a year plus benefits and paid sick days, while contractors can expect to earn $250-450 (plus expenses, in most cases) a day.
Best of all, "you are routinely challenged in a career that has no routine," jokes Friedenberg.
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