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.
Overseeing my training is Aubrey Tiedt, Etihad Airways vice president for guest services. Originally from Dundrum, she spent almost 20 years with Royal Gulf Airlines where she worked her way up from flight attendant to a senior executive role. She joined Etihad a year ago .
She is always on-message. She will only refer to passengers as guests and has a keen eye on customer service. “It has disappeared across the world but it is starting to make a comeback,” she says as she sits back and sips a cup of milky tea in her bright and airy corner office in company HQ. “There is a huge need for better service and our customers love it – 96 per cent of the feedback we got last year was positive.”
Were he to see the Etihad way up close, Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary would have terrible nightmares for a month, not just because of the smiling staff and customer service spend, but because this is the only other airline in the frame to buy Aer Lingus and has already acquired a three per cent stake.
Etihad staff are expected to be nice to passengers (sorry, guests) at all times and the customer is king. “A lot more people are travelling than ever before and maybe a lot of the excitement that used to surround air travel has been lost, but people still want to be treated as people. Flying is still an experience and it is more than just traveling from A to B,” Tiedt says.
She is proud of the airline’s achievements in the 10 years since its maiden flight. It has grown at a phenomenal rate and has won dozens of passenger choice awards. Lst year it turned a profit despite it being almost unheard of to go from start-up to profitability in less than a decade.
So how can an airline that doesn’t cut corners make money in our low-fare world? “ We are very efficient,” Tiedt says. “We might have 12 crew on-board when other airlines will have 14. We have cross management so crew can move between first and business and economy.”
Etihad has been flying from Ireland since 2007 and will increase its capacity from Dublin by 34 per cent this summer when it puts a larger Boeing 777 aircraft on the route for six of the 10 weekly flights.
In addition to increasing its Irish passenger numbers, it wants to increase its Irish employee numbers too, and is staging a recruitment roadshow in the Burlington hotel in Dublin next Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s not a bad job – €40,000 tax free plus free accommodation in Abu Dhabi and cheap flights all over the world. A couple of years ago they struggled to find staff but as the downturn has deepened – everywhere but Abu Dhabi it seems – the numbers looking for work have grown.
“The key skills we look for are that initial interaction, that warmth, that smile. If you have a bad attitude, I can’t change that and this is the wrong business to be in, but you can learn everything else,” Tiedt says.
So I set about learning everything else. I am taken to a kitchen where staff are learning how to plate-up food for first and business class passengers. This is where long-haul airlines traditionally make their profits – hardly surprising when you consider that a return business class fare from Dublin to Abu Dhabi will cost around €4,000 .
I assemble an elaborate plate which is like a particularly stressful episode of MasterChef , but I don’t disgrace myself and we move on, to another mocked up cabin where bad things are happening.
In one aisle a man is trying to dislodge a piece of chicken from another’s throat, while across the way a woman is giving CPR. Defibrillator pads are being attached to another poor chap’s chest. “It is one thing learning these things in a classroom but we find it is much more effective to do the training in an atmosphere which is as close to the real thing as it is possible to get,” Tiedt says.
Despite the training, she admits “the truth is that you cannot know how someone will react to an emergency situation until they are actual in that situation. But the more safety training we give, the more we can be confident that training will kick in in an emergency.”
Suddenly she adopts a sterner tone. “What do you think is the biggest enemy on the plane?” I say snakes, but that’s wrong. Smoke is the enemy. “And what do you do when you are confronted by an enemy?”
“Run away screaming?” Wrong again.
“Fight,” she says in a startlingly loud voice. “You fight back.”
I am shown into another stripped back cabin. The seats are all metal and the reason quickly becomes clear. Fires can break out in any seat and in any one of the overhead lockers on in the galley. I am given a fire extinguisher and told to go to work. It is like a computer game and not hard, at least in this artificial environment. Doing it for real at 35,000 feet with smoke billowing up and passengers screaming? Well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
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