I’ve recently mentioned that I traded in my security badge for flight attendant wings. And I also mentioned that my background in criminology from college and security work gave me a leg up in my training. Not to say that other jobs are less easy to transition from, including those who have more travel and flying experience than I do, but I do have a unique perspective because of my previous jobs.
With airlines, it’s easy to think from an outside perspective that all flight attendants do are hosts/servers in the air. My boyfriend still likes to call me that instead of the actual title. Actually that is second on our priority list after safety of aircraft and passengers. I think the idea that most passengers have is that all thoughts of safety are on the ground with the TSA (or equivalent) checking our bags, conducting x-rays, pulling me aside because the metal detector went off on my ankle (this happens almost every time I fly and I have no idea what it’s picking up, I don’t keep my knife on an ankle strap anymore), and making sure our liquids are within the regulated allowance. In short, they are the reasons we need to get to the airport two hours early and they are the ones taking away our toothpaste and hand cream and peanut butter before we can go and drink in the bars before boarding.
What people don’t realize is that they are just step one in security. They are just the most obvious. They do the bulk of the work in making sure that anything that shouldn’t be near an aircraft is nowhere it. But think about it: if a person gets crazy every time they drink, who’s going to stop them from harming themselves or others? TSA can’t do anything because they are drinking after they leave security. What if someone gets a call while waiting for the flight and find out their spouse is cheating on them and they become unhinged by it? That’s not something TSA can look for. This is where we come in.
When I was a security guard, one of the most important aspects of the job was making sure those trying to get on the property were allowed there and had the correct credentials and anyone else was politely told to fuck off.
Most of the reasons we have regulations on aircrafts are because an incident happened in the past that resulted in injuries or deaths. We lock the pilots inside the cockpit behind a reinforced door with multiple levels of access control and locks to make sure no one can get inside and hurt the people trying to get us to our next destination. Before 9/11, this was not mandatory. Now I don’t think you’ll ever see any airline in the world not do it. And we have to have two cabin crew in the area if the door is opened to make sure no one else goes in.
Not all guards are certified in first aid and CPR, but multiple sites I worked on decided it was mandatory. So when we went over how to treat minor illnesses and aches and pains, it was all review for me. I always hope I will never have to use most of what I learn in training, but if it’s necessary, I will know how to help a woman give birth in a galley, how to drag/lift a person out of their window seat and into the aisle to restart their heart, how to treat a stab wound, anaphylaxis, or asthma. And I know how to do it calmly while everyone around me is freaking out. Emergency situations, like I said, are ones we all hope we’ll never get into, but also something we keep in mind at all times.
When I worked security, there was a lot of sitting down and doing nothing. That was when I went over fake situations in my head, from someone slipping and falling to someone coming into the building with a gun. If I could survive it in my head, then I would already know what to do if it really happened to me. In flight, we even have a name for this: the 30-second review that we do at every take-off and every landing where we think about everything going on and what our duties are if there is an emergency. The review is done more for if there is a failed take-off or landing and a crash situation is happening, but it works the same way in preparedness for anything.
Fires can happen anywhere at any time. And if they aren’t handled properly can be devastating. Fires are the reason for tons of terrible accidents on planes, so it’s important to know how to handle them, no matter what form they take. Like Red Forman said, “You’re never too old to burn to death in a fire.”
We were trained in firefighting for security and how to check the fire extinguishers to make sure they will work properly. We were retrained every year to make sure we still remembered how to fight them properly.
For cabin crew it was a little more in depth because airplanes don’t have sprinkler systems inside of them to help so we have to do everything ourselves. But I at least wasn’t starting out not even knowing how to properly lift an extinguisher (something others in my training class cannot say).
Again, this is something I hope I will never have to deal with and can just file it under “things I know but don’t really need to know.” Like the first alarms were made by sticking a needle in a candle and when it melted past that point the needle would fall and making a clanging noise. I was lucky in the fact that the one bomb threat I did have to deal with was very obviously a prank and nothing came of it. But even though I knew as soon as the boys on the phone said it with others in the background giggling that it was a hoax, my adrenaline levels soared. Just hearing the word “bomb” while on shift is my biggest fear. But I have my checklist, I know all the procedures and the sequence to follow when there is a threat. I know the chain of command and how to safely and quickly inform only those that need to know. I know everything down to a T and because I go over it often, I know I can keep calm during said procedures. Even though on an airplane they change, it doesn’t mean I won’t have any idea what to do and that’s the most important part.
The bulk of my month-long training was spent ingraining evacuation procedures and commands into our heads so that they are second nature. One of the things they made sure to say was to make sure you are loud and assertive. You are trying to get everyone off a large box that if they don’t get off soon will become a tomb on top of a mass grave.
For an airplane to be allowed to fly, it has to go through many safety tests. One of them is that every passenger and all crew must be able to evacuate the aircraft using only half of the exits in 90 seconds. The Airbus A380 is the largest passenger aircraft, can hold over 800 passengers and sixteen crew. They were able get off the aircraft with eight doors in about 75 seconds when they were being tested.
It would be impossible to get hundreds of screaming and scared people off the plane if you’re not assertive. You don’t stay calm here and ask people if they could please come towards you. You yell and scream and beckon people to your door and then you get your own ass out.
As either a guard or cabin crew, you get everyone out of the area as quick as possible and when it’s no longer safe for you to be somewhere, you leave. And you round everyone up to keep an eye on them and make sure there is minimal or ideally no loss of life. We know only to grab items of utmost importance like first aid kits, survival gear, our unconscious coworkers. If someone else wants to take all seven of the bags they insisted on taking with them, that’s fine, but if they hold up my line I have every right to take it from your hands and chuck it outside, I don’t care if I just smashed the crystal ball you just bought, you’re getting the hell off my plane. Security taught me that you are nice and friendly to everyone until you have no choice but to not be nice anymore. As soon as the pilot says “Emergency evacuation, get out,” I’m done with please and thank you.
Some people are just weird. I get that. And no matter how weird you are, you are allowed to fly usually. There is a difference between being weird and being suspicious. Describing that difference, however, is hard to describe. It’s like any other kind of intuition in that you just instinctively know that something is off. Security has taught me to always trust that instinct. We know the aircraft, we know what things should sound like and what they shouldn’t, how things should feel. When there is a change, that means there’s a problem.
I am the type of person to always listen to my instincts and to make sure I follow up on them. If I feel someone is being suspicious I will talk to them to see if they give off any other clues. Are they agitated easily? Sweating? Will they look me in the eye? Do they look like they’re hiding something? If I can answer yes to these and truly feel unsafe, I won’t hesitate to alert the captain and possibly get the person off the plane. I’d rather someone complain to my airline that we (politely but firmly) kicked them off their flight than to have hundreds of people die over the Atlantic.
Security was a great gig and I will always be happy I did it. I knew it would not be something I made into a career, but now that I am starting a new job, one that I may very well turn into a career, I might have to say that yes, security is still a part of my life’s work.