Certified Flight Attendants

By Robert Mark on April 9th, 2009

Most airline passengers understand that pilots are required to qualify initially through FAA guidelines, are also required to regularly undergo a physical exam just to make sure some small problem doesn’t lead to incapacitation aboard a flight.

FA 1 jetwhine Did you know that flight attendants are not normally required to undergo any kind of regular physical exam? When they’re hired sure, but not after that. Flight attendants also don’t fall under any FAA certification guidelines. Once the company says they are good to go, that’s it.

Most good airlines do require recurrent cabin training for flight attendants, but those standards are not near as rigorous as for pilots. But regular FAA required physicals, nope.

Although a few bone-headed flyers believe a flight attendant is around in case they want a snack or a drink, flight attendants are FAA required personnel on any airliner of more than 19 seats. Those men and women are there for the safety of passengers in an emergency. Drinks and snacks are incidental.

A Continental Expression

I climbed aboard a Continental Express Embraer RJ flight at Newark a few weeks ago on the way back to ORD. The flight was as smooth as silk. The landing perfect. Inside the cabin, however, things were not quite so smooth. In fact, by the time we landed in Chicago, I was worried. Honestly, it’s the first time I’ve ridden on an airplane when I thought the flight attendant would have gotten in the way during an emergency.

The only required flight attendant – I’ll call her Helen – was about 60 years old. As we belted in, she gave the briefing from the front while the cockpit door was still open. When she gave the flight number she got it wrong. We were flight 1602 or something like that while she mentioned 3642. Not even close I thought.  interestingly, while Helen was on the PA, the captain, another lady, could be heard in the background giving her the correct number.FA 4 jetwhine

That in itself is not big deal. Ever leg on an airline flight is a different number. Unless you have a cheat sheet in front of you, mistakes are common.

The temperature in the cabin was a problem though, almost from the moment of takeoff, cycling between hot and cold. Uncomfortable, but not life threatening. About the time we reached cruise altitude, it became really uncomfortable, enough that people were mumbling amongst themselves about it.

The pilot in me rang the FA call button. Maybe they had no idea what was going on since we hadn’t seen the flight attendant since takeoff. I waited … and waited. After about five minutes, Helen still hadn’t shown her face. I rang it again. Four or five minutes more and still no Helen.

The guy next to me looked at the front and then at me raising his eyebrows as if to say, “Good thing we didn’t need her for anything.” Maybe she was in the lav, I thought. A few minutes later Helen came walking down the aisle from the cockpit area. Finally, I thought. She walked right past me and the call light.

“Excuse me maam. Ah, maam.”

Helen looked the other way as she passed like she wasn’t sure where the voice was coming from. I waved my hand and eventually grabbed her attention.

People were looking at me by now with me waving my paw, but I was really starting to worry about this lady. I mentioned the call button. “I tried to ring you a few times,” I said. She asked what I needed and I mentioned the now-sweltering cabin temperature. “This particular airplane always does that,” Helen said. “Nothing we can do about it I’m afraid.” She disappeared up the aisle. I turned off the call button myself.

No more was said until we headed into ORD. After landing, Helen was a little quiet. Once we parked, she came back on the PA to say thanks for flying. When she reached the part about baggage claim and all that, she stopped in the middle of her conversation. “For those of you who checked bags at the gate at Newark, you’ll find your bags … ah … ah.” The PA clicked off. Then Helen came back on and struggled to explain what we should do to find our bags and essentially just gave up saying welcome to Chicago. On the way off the aircraft, Helene said “bye.”

An Overreaction?

I’ve spent a heck of a lot of my life in both the front and the cabin side of airliners. Never in my life have I ever encountered an employee I thought was physically impaired. If there had been a crash during this trip, we’d have needed to help this woman, not the other way around.

In defense of this flight attendant, she could have simply been sleep impaired. It happens a lot in the aviation business. In case you hadn’t noticed, the FAA barely cares about how long pilots are on duty, let alone flight attendants. But what if it was more than that?

I spent the better part of a day thinking about the incident. Was this flight attendant a problem or was I simply being silly. I called a few flight attendant friends mainly because I really wasn’t sure what to do next.

A friend from American set me straight. “Flight attendants are in the cabin for the safety of passengers,” she reminded me. “How are you going to feel if something happens on some other flight and you find out it was this same flight attendant … and that you knew and did nothing?”

I agreed and called customer service at Continental. The fellow who answered was pleasant and was clearly concerned. He said the airline would probably have someone fly with this woman a few times to see if anything was going on. He also made it clear they would not contact me in the future about the incident, period.

Did I make more out of this than was necessary? I still don’t think so.

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12 Responses to “Certified Flight Attendants”

  1. Mal Gormley Says:

    You are absolutely right to be worried about this woman, for exactly the reasons you stated. I’m glad you followed thru & called Continental but shame on them for not offering any follow up for you.

    My worry is that the F/A may have been A. Tipsy, B. overtired (as you worried), C. Senile. In any event this just isn’t acceptable.

    If anything that landing in the Hudson proved it is that a well-trained crew–the whole crew–is essential to a safe outcome in an emergency.

  2. Boyd Falconer Says:


    Did you make more out of this than was necessary?


    …that’s an emphatic ‘no’, by the way!

  3. Justin Brewer Says:

    ‘m glad you wrote this one!! I hate poor customer service and laziness with a passion! This woman is a danger to all of her passengers and her lack of service must be addressed. She took how long to show up? Thank goodness no one was having a heart attack or terrorists were not taking over the cabin! She cannot even shut the call light off? She walked right by? She didn’t bother to research where the baggage could be located? What a horifically irresponsible woman. The amount of slacking takes effort! I’d like to see her scared straight with threatened job loss. I’ve had ENOUGH of unacceptable customer service and irresponsible people. If I applied her work ethics to my job, people would be killed. I wish you got more of a response than “thanks but we’ll never give you feedback on this.” I think that she’ll straighten up when she is observed by the company and then slack right off again when she feels secure.

    Glad you brought it up!


  4. TheGimliGlider Says:

    You did the right thing by calling Customer Service and letting them know about it. She is indeed a danger to passengers when and if an in-flight emergency occurs. Believe me or not, I can forgive and forget everything. Heck even Captain Sullenberger said to ATC that his flight number was 1539 while the correct no. was 1549, but if you repeatedly pressed the FA button and still nobody came to your assistance, that’s totally inexcusable and I’d do anything and everything in my power to have her fired.

    I’ve flown to India, UAE, Singapore, Thailand, UK, Japan, Malaysia, Italy, Germany, Finland, Sweden & France on pleasure trips on an airlines which is the one and only national carrier in a poverty-stricken third-world south-east Asian country and I can swear on all gods that I’ve never even heard of such an incident during my entire life, nor do I expect to.

    I strongly believe it’s the said airliner in question that should be brought to the attention of concerned authority and FAA.

  5. Bob Benton Says:

    It was many years ago and I was on a Piedmont flight of five stops between Roanoke and Chicago, I believe. The equipment was an F-27 and the F/A gave the flight information (stops and final destination, with flight number) on the ground before we departed. From that point on, the first officer made the required safety belt and tray table walkthroughs and the cabin announcements. The F/A spent her time in the lav, no doubt sick as a dog through the bumpy flight (my own opinion), emerging after the plane landed at each stop for passenger unloading and loading. This continued all the way to Chicago O’Hare. Unbelievable!

    You are very correct in your actions.


  6. GNAStech Says:

    “…interestingly, while Helen was on the PA, the captain, another lady, could be heard in the background giving her the correct number.”

    Interesting indeed. The incidental comments you make keep me coming back for more. But this is not really what I was going to comment on. I was in the doctor’s office yesterday and perusing a magazine that had a “factoid” page about age. One of the “factoids” was regarding the average age of the three flight attendants that were aboard the Hudson water landing. The average age of those three women is 55. Their age never became an issue because they efficiently did their job during the emergency. But what about that young flight attendant on my flight from Chicago to OKC? I was sitting bolt upright in that last row of seats in the back and this young lady was sitting on her little fold-down, head thrown back and sleeping. She was also black. Now, we’re talking about customer service in general now, right?

  7. TheGimliGlider Says:

    @GNAStech What has her race got to do with her job and this post? O_O

  8. Robert Mark Says:

    Must admit I agree with GimliGlider on this one.

    The fact that the woman was black is somewhat off track.
    What if I’d said the reason I had the problem aboard Continental was because the flight attendant was a woman to begin with?

  9. TheGimliGlider Says:

    @GNAStech A California mom has been charged with murder of 8-year-old girl who she also kidnapped and abused with a foreign object. And the mom was white, an avid Christ follower and church-goer. See what I did there?

    I’m not black by the way.

  10. GNAStech Says:

    Point is: When people fail your expectations all sorts of things are pointed out about them that have nothing to do with their failure. For example, their age, their gender and their race or ethnicity frequently become the incidental details of stories like this. You easily prejudicing your audience with them. Do you see how you thought I was criticizing the woman for being black? It was just an incidental detail taken seriously by you.

  11. CarolynW Says:

    Back in the late 70s, I was working for the National Weather Service in Bismarck, ND. I called the tower at 4am for clearance for a balloon release. The controller mumbled something and hung up. Since I didn’t understand him, and needed clearance, I called him back. More mumbling, and slurring of words, and he hung up. I talked to a fellow employee who also called him, more unintelligible words. We both agreed he sounded drunk. I released the balloon after doing a visual of no traffic, and then we called the Center who I guess must have tried to contact him and then called his supervisor. We were told later the controller had suffered a stroke.

    I have a daughter who is an insulin-dependent diabetic and has had diabetes since age 6. When she has too much insulin, and her sugar level drops too low, she acts as if she is spacy, or drunk. She will start sentences and not finish them. She will ack like a zombie, and once walked right by me and looked at me, but it was if she looked right through me, and then walked on. She does wear a MedicAlert bracelet to let people know what’s wrong with her if she starts behaving strangely, and hopefully someone will call 911 in her behalf.

    This flight attendant may have been in the same situation as either of the two people mentioned above. You may never know what her problem was, due to privacy issues, but rest assured you did the right thing in reporting the incident so she could be checked out.

  12. Norman Says:

    Great point Carolyn, pilot incapacitation reports and bucket loads of testimony like yours show that the person who is becoming incapacitated cannot be relied upon to pass the message that they ain’t drunk, on drugs, mentally ill or otherwise indisposed. They may get violent, irrational or simply unresponsive.
    A bit like me after a trip with a long meridian transit…. or some cabin crew I know. LOL

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