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Mascara, meltdowns and math -- what really happens at flight attendant recruitment days
If you're a perfect specimen of a well-adjusted human being, you might suit a career as a flight attendant. But it's not guaranteed
Friendly? Attentive? Beautiful? Got the potential to keep your head while ushering 300 nervous breakdowns onto an inflatable slide?
You could just be the ideal flight attendant.
But you’ll have to earn it.
An international airline receives an average of 15,000 applications for cabin crew a month, not including those in the cockpit, and recently I was one of them.
As well as the promise of a career circling the globe, the process I went through gave me an insight into -- and a huge respect for -- the men and women that fliers so often take for granted.
Apparently it takes more than being a tall, educated gazelle to get a job in the air.
After all, the success of an airline depends in large part on the cabin crew.
A 2012 customer service report on the U.S. airline industry conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed that three-quarters of passengers say the airline staff contributes to a good flying experience.
I won't reveal which major international airline I applied for but when I read the prerequisites -- 21 years or over, high school graduate, and with an arm-reach of at least 212 centimeters -- I think it’s fair to say I was confident, even if that did describe half the population.
Come recruitment day and suddenly the gloves are off, the mascara and gel nails are on, and you realize your high school popularity counts for little in the cutthroat world of young people trying to bluff their way into a couple years of free travel.
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Day 1: Open house
I arrive with around 1,000 other hopefuls, but after the initial screening session -- a group discussion of questions like, “Would you be reborn a man or woman?” -- we’re straight away cut to 100.
I’m one of the lucky ones to get through.
If that’s not ruthless enough, it soon becomes clear that candidates are required to have won the genetic lottery.
The next three hours are spent telling us about the airline and also what’s expected of successful candidates.
“To be a flight attendant you need to have nice, straight white teeth,” explains the head recruiter. “This is not like weight, it cannot be fixed short-term.”
Check. Four years of train tracks and headgear have done me some good.
“Light skin tone is also essential, and if you have acne that cannot be covered, that is a problem, OK?”
Nothing wrong with my skin a little foundation can’t fix. Check.
“Hair must be dark.”
He points to a girl with dyed auburn hair. “You. You have to spray that with something or change your color.”
My black roots are in. Check.
“Pimples, you must be able to completely conceal the pimples.
“And no glasses. You need a note from your doctor if you can’t wear contact lenses. But you must wear lots of mascara.”
So far it seems more like a beauty pageant than a recruiting day.
One girl who is told not to return breaks down in tears in front of the group. Maybe it's because of your hair, another kindly suggests.
Once we’re all gasping with insecurity about our appearance, the recruiter gives us an hour’s worth of personality tips on how to impress at the interviews next week.
Summed up: “Have a good attitude, smile, be honest, be demure, be excited, be confident, be polite.”
Be a Stepford wife.
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Day 2: Interview day (a week later)
Twenty-two of the 100 invited candidates don’t turn up, a wisdom many of us envied by the end of the day.
The “interview” is a 13-hour marathon broken up into various rounds, each followed by the distribution of slips of paper indicating either success or failure to advance.
With every round, your entire persona, along with your assumed talents, are deconstructed and scrutinized.
At 9 a.m. the first interview takes place -- a five-minute one-on-one chat with one of the recruiters.
Barely anything is ascertained that they couldn’t have discovered from my résumé.
The hardest part is the hours of waiting around.
At the end of it, the first of the paper slips of death are distributed, cutting us to around 40. I make it through.
Candidates have to work out two problems together, which, according to one of my co-hopefuls who has gone through the process at another airline, is meant to suss out teamwork and assertiveness.
The first problem involves building a famous landmark out of a stack of plain white A4 paper, a handful of paperclips and three rubber bands.
Having had a tip that the key is to be assertive but not aggressive, I assume the leader role, directing each girl, but carefully listen to suggestions too.
We construct the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong -- it looks like a scrunched up jumbo cigarette. The other team builds a beautifully layered Eiffel Tower and I start to worry.
Math and logic
The second problem is a group discussion where we need to decide who gets an upgrade: an unattended child, a mother with a baby, an elderly couple, a man with heart problems or the vice president of the airline.
I bite my tongue during our presentation as one girl messes up -- I don’t want to appear too domineering.
In the end, some candidates get cut despite having given logical answers.
“That girl in the gray skirt was too dominant,” whispers a recruiter. “She corrected another girls’ wrong answer when it wasn’t her turn. She didn’t listen.”
Now we’re down to 20, and I’m still in with a chance.
English comprehension exam
This written test is easy if it’s your first language, incredibly confusing if it’s your second.
It cuts the girls from 20 to 10 and once again I make it through. I’ve made the top 1 percent from the original 1,000 who turned up to the open day.
My hopes are getting raised, my dreams of a jet-setting, city-hopping life are starting to become focused, not just blurred dream-visions well out of reach.
At the end of the long day we’re sent home, but the fun isn’t over yet -- we need to do an online psychometric exam at home before the night is over. There are no “right or wrong answers,” we’re told.
The questions are along the lines of: “Are you overly sensitive all the time, sometimes or never?”
Do they want me to be sensitive? That’s good for customer service, right? Or perhaps not. I need to be stoic and calm in an emergency. Right?
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Day 3: Full interview (next day)
The next day the so-far-successful candidates are brought back for a 15-minute interview.
They ask about my work experience, discuss previous jobs and request two business attire photos and one casual dress photo.
This is so, along with the notes taken of the interviews, “the vice president can see how hot you look without your hair in a bun. There is an element of luck to get this gig,” says the recruiter.
This is not totally unreasonable, I think. Business attire does not do anyone justice and most Chinese girls look very similar in a black suit and with their hair in a bun.
I didn’t make it.
My career pointing at emergency exits and trying not to spill drinks ended before it began, but I did come away with a huge respect for those who do.
It is clear that you need more than just a pretty face.
I met young, bilingual, beautiful people with hospitality experience, and they didn’t even make it past the first round.
The 13-hour interview seems to me to be the key filter. It’s one big stress test to see how girls will respond to competition and long waiting hours.
It’s an efficient way to sieve out those lacking patience, since you have to wait hours between interviews.
Those who made it to the final round were beautiful, smart, bilingual, articulate and most importantly, very, very composed.
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