Etihad staff are expected to be nice to passengers (sorry, guests) at all times and the customer is king, as Conor Pope finds out on a cabin crew training day in Abu Dhabi
‘B end down, hold your knees. Bend down, hold your knees,” shouts the flight attendant over the intercom as the cabin lights flicker manically and the toilet doors swing wildly on loosening hinges. The shriek of the engines all but drowns out the noise of passengers screaming. The plane starts lurching violently, the cabin goes dark and we are ordered to evacuate through the blackness. We get up and run to the door. It’s blocked.
Welcome to Etihad Airways.
All airlines take safety seriously but here, at its Abu Dhabi headquarters, Etihad has built a simulator to recreate what happens when a plane gets into trouble, to prepare its cabin crew for eventualities everyone hopes will never happen.
It’s only a simulation and one set up for my benefit, but it is still terrifying. When the ordeal ends I am shown how to open the cabin doors. Opening a door is not, generally speaking, tricky, but the ones on planes are unforgiving and if you don’t let go at the right moment, they can haul you from the cabin to almost certain death. They are not to be messed with.
I let go just in time – way too early in fact – after which I’ve to make it to a life raft. This is no make-believe raft either. Etihad has built a swimming pool beside its fake plane and filled it with freezing water to recreate what it’s like to end up in the soup. There are 12 recruits already on the raft as I stroll on as if I’m walking Howth pier. They scream at me to get on my knees, then realise I have my shoes on and go mental. Once safely and shoelessly on board, I am shown how to secure a tarpaulin on to the top of the raft and how to get into the raft from the water – neither goes swimmingly.
Once I have learned how not to die opening a door or getting on a boat, I’m sent to another mocked-up plane. Thankfully this one is not going down. It’s still very stressful. I have to learn how to serve dinner to the well-heeled folk who fly in the airline’s business class cabins . I drape a white linen tablecloth over my left arm and balance a tray on the fingers of left hand as a colleague in the galley loads it with treats, and tall food – there is soup, smoked duck, a rocket salad, fancy breads, sparkling water, cutlery, glassware, and this is just the first of four courses.
I deliver the meal to the would-be guest (actually another trainee) with all the measured poise and aplomb of a Chapter One waiter. No, no I do not. As I walk unsteadily down the aisle, the water wobbles and spills, I nearly decapitate the passenger sitting in front of my target, and come within a hair’s breath of dumping the soup into thetrainee’s crotch.