How to reject propositions and other flight attendant training tips
I thought sitting in on “flight attendant experience” would be like auditing charm school.
I’d finally learn how to tease my hair into a perfect little bun, learn how to glide down the aisle like it was a runway and come away with a photo of myself in a cute uniform, complete with one of those pert hats.
Instead, when I arrive at Asianatown, the home base of Asiana Airlines near Gimpo International Airport, I walk into a full class of timid but deadly serious flight attendant wannabes.
One of a handful of training classes run by Asiana for flight attendant hopefuls throughout the year, this particular workshop -- called Cabin Crew Challenging Course -- is the first to be opened to Asiana Club members for a fee of 10,000 Asiana miles.
Apart from a few private and unaffiliated institutions (hagwon), Asiana is the only airline in the world that provides such training, according to the airline representatives.
"Many flight attendant applicants come from the region to attend these training workshops," says trainer J.S. Tak. "Training with a Korean airline is regarded very highly in the industry."
Some 27 bright-eyed young women, all in their early 20s, are sitting in the passenger seats of a mock aircraft. All are looking nervously to the front of the plane where two trainers -- both veteran flight attendants -- are dictating instructions on the upcoming role-playing.
Given the extremely limited space flight attendants have to work in, there are a lot more mechanics involved than one would expect.
We start with the drinks cart.
“This cart weighs at least 100 kilos,” says trainer Jung Bo-kyung. “One of my colleagues was badly hurt last week when her plane hit turbulence and the cart fell on her. Even though a strong male flight attendant rushed over and tried to lift it up, it was too heavy to get it off right away. She’s still out of action.”
Everyone eyes the cart nervously.
“If a baby is sleeping with their head sticking out in the aisle, imagine what would happen if you hit it with the cart during turbulence,” says Jung, to gasps of horror from all of us. She then shows how to lock and open the various compartment and how not to offend passengers while pouring (use a new can for each passenger, lower your hands while pouring fizzy drinks to avoid spraying).
The trainers then call a list of names, and the trainees start role-playing in groups of four. But first, everyone has to don bright red aprons.
“These aprons are becoming a trademark of Asiana,” says Jung. “These are very photogenic, and give the impression that we are cute and clean. We get a lot of enquiries about purchasing them, and they are available in-flight for ₩34,000 (approximately US$30) but they usually get sold-out.”
Once everyone has put on the aprons, the first group stands in the front of the plane with their hands gently folded on their stomachs. They bow and take turns introducing themselves.
“The service mentality is the most important part,” says Tak, an eight-year veteran flight attendant.
“Some people just don’t have it in them. We can easily spot applicants who don't really care about the service aspect, and who are only applying because they were told they were pretty, or something."
“I signed up because this is such a great opportunity to actually see what training is like,” says In-hye Kim, 21, a theater and film major who wants to become a flight attendant. “I feel like I’m learning a lot, and it’s so much fun.”
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Flight attendants picked by Asiana undergo three months of training at Asianatown before their first flight. In addition to all the heavy lifting (such as emergency and terrorist training), a significant part of the course is focused on intonation and word choice. How to phrase sentences and not intrude into someone’s space. How to politely reject propositions.
Indeed, the more I listen to the training, the more I realize that social rules somehow shift up in the sky. Since flight attendants offer such beautiful service, passengers seem to feel like they are owed something that they didn’t know existed 10 minutes ago, to quote American stand-up comedian Louis C.K.
Personally, after flying on Korean airlines -- Korean Air and Asiana -- I always get a rude shock when I fly any other airline, especially in regard to flight attendant service.
When I’m flying domestic U.S. airlines, for example, I don’t expect a damn thing. One time I asked for guava juice (it was my first domestic flight after years of flying international with Korean Air) I got a raised eyebrow, a snappy “What do you think this is, a bar?” and a Coke can thrown in my general direction.
The most entertaining part of the training is role-playing propositions from male passengers.
Without warning, trainer Tak launches into the role of a hotshot businessman trying to land a date.
“So how long do you have in Seoul until your next flight out?” he asks charmingly while he's being poured some orange juice. “How about we have dinner tomorrow?”
When the trainee blushes and stammers a "no," he gets offended. “Are you actually refusing a passenger? Here is my name card. If you want, you can call me.”
When she takes the card in confusion, he leaps to his feet.
“You should never take the name card, even for the sake of stopping a seemingly never-ending awkward conversation,” he says. "Just keep saying no politely and move away."
Another big no-no is medical assistance. Many Koreans believe that indigestion can be cured on the spot by pricking fingers with a needle until the blood comes, and frequently ask the flight attendants to administer this remedy in-flight.
“Even if the customer insists it’s OK and tries to give you the needle, and even if you’ve had a lot of experience at home, it’s never OK to make a medical decision and assist in a procedure like that unless you have a medical degree,” says Tak, shuddering at the thought.
And who are the most difficult passengers of all?
The answer is unexpected. We all guessed males in their 40s and 50s, but Tak says it is young women in the late 20s to early 30s.
"They can be extremely picky and high-maintenance," he says. "The worst are the ones who won't answer you directly, but will say what they want to their male companions instead, making everything take twice as much time as necessary."
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