Partner of a Pilot
The Candid Diary of an Airline Pilot’s Girlfriend

High jinks…what the cabin crew (and pilots) really get up to

This is the title of a news story I happened to come accross on the net just now… It makes for an uncomfortable read, but I thought I’d give my thoughts on it from things I’ve seen, and direct stories I’ve heard:

“For most of us ordinary travellers, flying has become an utterly miserable experience. But for one group of people, taking to the air can still be thrilling. They are the people who actually work in the business.

And take it from me, their on-board behaviour is at odds with those images of oh-so-perfect cabin attendants that beam out from every glossy airline advertisement.

Because once you scrape away that immaculate make-up and peer behind the curtain that separates the crew from their passengers, the airline industry is one of the raciest, naughtiest, shadiest businesses around ? as I discovered when I spent months speaking to cabin staff, ground crew and pilots to research my novel, Air Babylon.

We all suppose that cabin crew are pillars of the community; that butter wouldn’t melt in anyone’s mouth. But the more I dug around, and the more stories I heard, the more I realised they were a law unto themselves. Sex scandals. Fraud. Drink and drugs. You name it, some of them are up to it.

Employing more than 60,000 people in Heathrow alone, the airline business has its own language, its own rules, regulations and codes of misconduct.

This is a world that is divided into those who have jet fuel in their blood and those who don’t.

A world fuelled by backhanders, dirty tricks, sweeteners and scams; where the staff are on the make and the bosses look the other way. You only have to look at the luxury cars lined up in the staff car parks to realise that something is awry.

And one of the easiest ways to afford that immaculate new car is by selling up-grades. Check-in staff have long been susceptible to a fist-full of tenners slipped inside a passport.

If that fails, try offering them football season tickets, sex or any amount of fast-moving consumer goods they can stuff into their wheelie suitcases and you’ll soon find those magic letters SUG (suitable for upgrade) written on your ticket.

And the sharp practises don’t stop there. Once on board the plane, beware the trolley of Duty Free goodies on a long-haul flight and keep your eyes open as you purchase that Gucci watch for your girlfriend or wife. Some crafty flight attendants have been known to pull a fast one.

Watch out for the replica jewellery

What you think is a smart designer timepiece worth a couple of hundred pounds could, in fact, be a dodgy Bangkok replica they’ve bought in bulk and swapped immediately after you’ve admired the sample watch in the box.

And then what better way for them to spend your extra cash than at the bar. While there are plenty of flight attendants who behave well and have an early night once they land, there are also a good many who head for the nearest happy hour bar.

There is a booze culture in the flying community, particularly among younger members of staff, that makes most footballers look the very picture of sobriety. There is also an attitude that what happens when the chocks are off, stays there ? so the temptation to misbehave is huge.

The rule that cabin crew cannot drink eight hours before flying is often flouted, as is the ‘no boozing while flying’ regulation.

Plenty of cabin crew have vodka and orange or Baileys and coffee stashed all over the galley, and their favourite touchdown cocktail is the Bus (champagne, Cointreau, brandy and orange juice). Why the strange name? It has to be consumed on the airport courtesy bus on the way to the terminal, of course.

Cabin crew also fly back and forth to the same destinations, staying in the same five-star hotels. Airlines usually block book the same rooms, on the top floor of the hotel, to make sure that the rowdy crew don’t disturb other guests.

So with flight crew guaranteed their ‘usual quarters’ at the end of each flight, there are some who store stashes of drugs, either for continued personal use or for the comfort and convenience of their mates.

Taped under the cisterns in various toilets all over the world, supplies of cannabis and cocaine keep the landing party going long into the night.

The old hands don’t let a mere hangover keep them grounded: the quickest way to a clearer head is to steal the on-board oxygen supply. Indeed, it is not uncommon for there to be a queue of bleary-eyed flight attendants waiting for a few shots of oxygen before take-off.

And even though almost all pilots strictly adhere to the no drinking rule, anyone who imagines they spend the whole flight 100 per cent engaged in flying the plane should not read on. With autopilot able to land and take off a plane at a moment’s notice, the pilot is free to read a newspaper, do a crossword, moan about his pay, bitch about colleagues and compare cars/ house/ holidays/ wives with their number two.

Or, as in a recent case, strip off and have sex. Caught in flagrante by an attendant arriving with mid-flight snacks, the two stark naked male pilots fumbled for an excuse. Eventually, one of them explained they had split a drink and needed to take off their uniforms to dry them. Needless to say, they were fired.

BUT the fun and games don’t stop there. Let a crew loose in an empty plane and the first thing they do is entertain themselves with a tea tray. Each flight attendant grabs a tray and, as the empty plane takes off, they sit on the tray at the top of each aisle and toboggan the length of the plane. Accidents are common.

In fact, health emergencies on planes happen much more often than you would think. We’ve all heard the uplifting stories of babies being safely delivered by a willing cabin attendant, but we tend not to hear about the passengers who die on board.

Some say it is the stress of flying. Others that is it the ordeal of getting through the airport. Or maybe, given the amount of people taking to the air, it is just the law of averages. It is, though, a huge headache for the airlines.

While Singapore Airlines have introduced a corpse cupboard on one of their long-haul flights, others are not so organised. Do they leave the body where it is? Cover it in a blanket and pretend the deceased is just a bit under the weather? Up-grade it to First? Stash it in the toilet? All these options have been used in real life. Or rather, real death.

So next time you’re on board and that ‘toilet engaged’ sign appears to be permanently on, there’s probably a very good reason. There could be a dead body inside. Either that, or it’s a stewardess getting over-amorous at 30,000ft.”

Last updated at 08:56 15 February 2007

I read this aloud to Bf. Whilst he had never heard of the jewellery replica story, and couldn’t vouch for the ethics of the ground staff in either direction, he laughed at the fact she thought that auto pilot could take care of everything (take off for example) without a real pilot.  He did say that he didn’t know of any cabin crew drinking on a flight or on the way to the terminal. I have seen crew drinking in uniform on a crew bus, though in fairness, whilst they were on the way to a hotel after a long flight rather than on their way to work.

Of course some crew party. Most of these crew members are youngsters who are seeing the world and partying along the way.  Most of them have few or no commitments and this is exactly why they opted for this job. To most of the cabin-crew, they choose the job as a lifestyle rather than a career. Obviously some take it on as a career, as long as they can be professional when it matters; what is the issue if they want to have fun when they’re not on duty?

My feeling is that as long as they are not hurting anyone, or putting anyone in danger, then it is not an issue.  That said, I feel that they do owe their employer the duty of responsibility not to let their behaviour get out of hand or embarrass themselves in a way that could damage the airline’s reputation.

The whole ‘what happens while the chocks are off, stays there’ thing, and the ‘temptation to misbehave being huge’ is I guess what pilot wives and girlfriends fear most… Will my pilot cheat with a hostie? (Or will my hostie cheat with a pilot? from the other side).  The truth is-some will; and maybe SOME have the mantra that what happens on location, stays on location… But others don’t. Blogging, and social networking sites make this assumption a dangerous risk for airline crew to take. I happen to trust my partner not to do this, and he trusts me to be faithfull whilst he’s away.  We both understand how desperately hurtful it feels to be on the receiving end of unfaithful partners antic. I do however, know several women who dig around looking for evidence of misbehaviour by their partners from time-to-time, and as my last post tells you, not all of these are from the aviation industry.

I have actually seen a few crew flout the ‘8 hour rule’ (for sobriety) with my own eyes. In fact, of the two crew members I am recalling; I believe that one has been sacked for a failed liver-function test.  Having said this though; I know it is something that I think most pilots, including Bf are very extremely careful about. Random breathalyzer tests; whilst rare, are not worth risking the career these pilots worked so hard and paid so much to get for the sake of a glass of beer or a few glasses of wine. 

I know that cabin crew regularly violate this rule though, and will ofen work through a cracking hangover, and Bf had certainly heard of hosties using the on-board oxygen cylinders to help with this!

The thing about the same rooms being booked in the same hotels abroad is true, so possibly some crew may hide a supply of drugs in a toilet cistern may be true for a tiny percentage of the staff (I guess) and I have certainly heard of cabin crew (rather than flight deck) taking drugs whilst away, but again-Bf had not heard of stashes being made, nor did he know which of the crew he worked with were drug users, though he says that some who say they don’t drink whilst away, then apparently party hard, always rouse his suspicion.

The part written about pilots reading newspapers and having a chat in the cruise is definitely true… But lets think about this one… You are a pilot doing an 11 hour flight, with roughly a 9 hour cruise-most of which is over the Atlantic or something. Of course they are not working at 100% concentration for this full duration. In fact, there are rest periods built into this period. Why else would you need 2 or 3 pilots on these flights?!  As long as one pilot has their eye on the ball at all times during the cruise, there is no issue is there? What would this reporter do-have them wear nappies (diapers) during flight; so that they couldn’t take bathroom breaks either!?

As for sex in the cockpit… Bf has never heard of this actually happening. In most planes, there simply wouldn’t be room in the cockpit for a start! However, as we all know, it is not unheard of for there to be ‘stripping’/flashing occurring in there. Bf has heard of a few cases where this happened within his own airline, although luckily has never seen it first hand. The closest situation he encountered to this was a hostie who came in to proudly tell them all about her new boob job; but neither he, nor the captain gave her the reaction she was looking for.  One of my friend’s husbands (from another airline) had been in the cockpit when a hostie decided that she should show them her new boob job. Her husband had been pretty mortified, but the Captain had requested a closer inspection and a quick feel, and she had ‘graciously’ granted his request-classy!

As for death’s on the plane. It is an unfortunate situation that these events do occur. But of the few times I have hear about this happening, the cabin crew have handled the situation with professionalism, dignity and respect. Bf’s airline do not have ‘corpse cupbords’ but they generally section off a private area like the rear galley and will divert to the nearest airport. I think that it is unrealistic to assume that a corpse cabin should be installed on every aeroplane, as not only is the need for it exceptionally rare, but I cannot see how this is any better than what his airline currently do already… Locking a dead body in a cupboard and forgetting about it seems almost more disrespectful.

Tea tray racing also happens on empty aeroplanes. To be honest, if the crew want to take this risk, and they are not responsible for the safety of passengers, then it is their own fault if they get hurt-though I have never heard of any serious injuries happening in these situations. You have to remember that these guys and girls are well seasoned air travellers, who are used to walking around in the climb and descent of a trip where passengers would usually be seat belted.

To be honest, I’d probably have a go at tea tray surfing given half a chance! I bet Imogen (the reporter) did whist she was working under cover! 

The thing is, all of these ‘horror stories’ and moral panics are spun way out of proportion by some journalists.  It makes for a great story to tar the whole industry with the same brush. But lets be honest. At an average office made up of mostly young responsibility free staff, and a few uber responsible senior managers, I guarantee that you would get exactly the same behaviour patterns.

I have worked in offices where we’ve had people who were clearly taking drugs, and there was racy behaviour at office parties by a few of the staff… So come on, lets be adults now, and stop trying to pretend that this is such a shock, or that it means that everyone employed in the aviation industry is morally deprived!  

“So next time you’re on board and that ‘toilet engaged’ sign appears to be permanently on, there’s probably a very good reason.” There could be a dead body inside. Either that, or it’s a stewardess getting over-amorous at 30,000ft. Lets be real, a passenger with a tummy upset has probably blocked the toilet, and it is out of service.


4 Responses to “High jinks…what the cabin crew (and pilots) really get up to”

  1. I am interested as to WHO her sources are. I’ve never heard of anything like that happening (although I can certainly understand if that does happen). The worst I’ve heard is the pilots MAY do something a little out of the ordinary if the plane is empty. For example, my husband, on occasion, would test the short-field take-off performance of his aircraft, along with how well it would hold ground-effect, then pitch up. I’ve seen him execute this maneuver in our personal airplanes, he gets a rush out of it. It is pretty exciting, but not exactly dangerous.
    On the other hand, I’ve also had concerns about particular pilots when I managed a 135 operation for a short time. It was my job to schedule the pilots and I was forever having problems with a few of them coming into work hung-over or “having a beer for breakfast” so I wouldn’t make them work that day. At the time, the company was short on pilots, so they pretty much got away with it from the management, but if it were up to me, I would have suspended them for that kind of action. I mean, come on, it’s a professional business. People look up to the pilots to get them from one location to another, SAFELY. If you can’t rely on your pilot, who can you rely on?
    My 2-cents is that if these companies KNOW they have pilots violating the regs, they need to do something about it. With all the furloughs going on right now, I’m sure they won’t have a problem replacing these kind of pilots/crew.

  2. I hostie showed your mates husband her new boob job in the cockpit? I can’t believe this!! What a tart.

  3. Oops I meant “a hostie…”

    Sorry I haven’t slept for over 72 hours and think my brain is starting to misfire….

  4. I know!!!! I was shocked when I heard, but Bf had heard of it happening in his company, and I’m pretty sure that the one who told he and that captain about it would have obliged if they’d given her the reaction she was looking for…

    You get them in all walks of life though. A friend of mine who works in IT was given the opportunity to check out a co-worker’s boob job too.

    I have no idea why someone would want to show this to someone randomly, as they’re blatantly never going to respect you afterwards… Also, if you actually liked them, you would want them to think you had a bit more class than to let any random guy cop a look/feel-surely?

    I guess I’ll never get my head around what motivates someone who is sober and at work to behave this way-go figure!

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