What's it really like to be a flight attendant? An Emirates cabin crew member reveals all
Published 23/06/2016 | 16:21
Fancy travelling the world on a tax-free salary? We asked a high-flying Irish flight attendant exactly what's involved.
Roma Armstrong (31) is the picture of old-school, airline glamour.
Sitting in the drawing room of Dublin's Merrion Hotel, in full Emirates regalia, she turns heads - from businessmen passing by to the little girl at the next table.
So how did this farmer's daughter from Ballina, Co. Mayo, get to travel the world and live a sky-high lifestyle on a tax-free salary?
With an Emirates Open Day scheduled in Dublin's Hilton Hotel on Charlemont Place for Saturday, June 25, we asked Roma what it's really like to be a flight attendant, and what it takes to come through the airline's recruitment process.
How did you become a flight attendant?
Roma Armstrong (right), with her Emirates colleagues.
I’m from Mayo, just outside Ballina - a farmer’s daughter from the west of Ireland! I used to work for Ulster Bank as a Savings & Investment Advisor, but myself and two friends took a redundancy package to go travelling.
I always wanted to travel, that’s the whole reason I left Ireland. I worked for a year in Australia, and one day I saw a sign saying: ‘Why work on the ground when you can work 40,000 feet in the air?’ So I went along to an Open Day with my CV.
My plan was to stay for a year. That was three-and-a-half years ago!
What's a typical month in your job?
We get our schedules once a month, and we fly on average between 80 and 100 hours in a month. That’s pretty good. This time, my destinations have included Vienna, Milan, New York, Sydney and Auckland, where I plan to take a few days off.
Every month we get our rosters, but we can bid on or request various routes. Emirates employs around 23,000 cabin crew, but they do their best to accommodate us.
You can also swap rosters with your colleagues. So if you have Dublin and I have Vienna, we can swap, and everyone’s happy.
We need a minimum of two days off in every seven. After a long-haul flight you need a minimum of two days rest back in Dubai. I like longer flights, because you get your hours done, you get to see the destination, you come back and have time off.
Basically I signed up to travel the world. But the world is a big place!
What perks and benefits are involved?
We earn a tax-free salary. Emirates pays for our training, uniforms and even our bills in Dubai. To be honest, I live in a bubble. I’ll get a shock if I go back to the real world!
It’s not a job; it’s a lifestyle for us. There is a beautiful apartment that’s included in the job. I live five minutes from Dubai Mall! I also go on holidays every month. That’s not flying. That’s not layovers. That’s separate. That’s annual leave and days off.
Emirates cabin crew get discounted flights - we pay 10pc of the fare. That’s not just for us, it’s for our families as well. You can nominate people for discounted tickets anywhere in the world. You can literally follow your passion anywhere.
In Dubai, Emirates cabin crew have discount cards, so we get reductions in Dubai Mall and various water parks, gyms and attractions. We can go free to night clubs like Armani, Cavalli, Movida. Dubai has some of the best nightlife in the world.
NB: Emirates also provides airport transfers, health insurance, a government pension scheme and an end of service gratuity, among other benefits.
How can I apply for a job?
You can apply online, but we also have Open Days, so bring your CV. The recruitment consultants will tell you all about the airline, Dubai, the change, what’s expected of you. After that, you may get invited to a one-to-one interview.*
Interview day is almost like a knockout stage. Of all the people who apply, they choose about 5pc, or one in 20. They select a certain type of person.
*For more on careers with Emirates, see emiratesgroupcareers.com.
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What are the job requirements?
Emirates lists Cabin Crew requirements on its website as:
- At least 21 years of age at the time of joining
- Arm reach of 212cm while standing on tiptoes
- Minimum height of 160cm
- High school graduate (Grade 12)
- Fluency in English (Written and Spoken)
- No visible tattoos while in Emirates Cabin Crew uniform (cosmetic and bandage coverings not permitted)
- Physically fit to meet the Emirates Cabin Crew requirements
The airline also requires a positive attitude, 'empathy for others', a strong cultural awareness and the ability to adapt to new people and environments.
"It’s very personality based," Roma says. "We all have something in common – I guess it’s an attitude. You need to be culturally aware, because we fly to 120 destinations, we meet people from all walks of life. You need to be open-minded and positive too.
"Irish people are loved all over the world. We are caring, kind, the way we deal with people – Emirates as a company loves Irish people. We have over 500 Irish staff at the moment. They see us as being genuine, a hospitable country."
Do looks matter in selection?
We’re more than just a pretty face. What’s your definition of a pretty face, after all? It could mean something different to different nationalities.
You’d be surprised. Our crew come from all walks of life. Every profession you could think of is represented on board. We're from 130 countries, and some of our backgrounds would wow you. We’re not just there smiling and stereotyping.
Our image is our brand, especially our uniform and the way we wear it. I wear it with pride. We come from different places, our skin colours are different, but our uniforms blend us as one. That’s how you identify us.
Of course, you need to be fit to do this job. You need to take care of yourself. I go to the gym, I like to run. It’s an active job and you need to be healthy.
Are there male cabin crew?
I would say the split is probably 70-30. We have a lot of Irish men that work for us who have met their wives on their travels! It’s the same application process for both.
What does training involve?
We have a five-week intensive training programme, where we cover everything from medical and safety to image, uniform and grooming standards.
Training starts with an induction day in Dubai, where they talk about the city, the contrast with your home country and an Arabic, Muslim country. I didn’t know a lot of that before I arrived, so I found it really helpful.
The five weeks are very full-on. You have Friday and Saturday off, but there are long days, with a lot of information. It's good training. If you need it, it kicks in. We’re even trained to deliver babies. Whatever can happen in the sky, we’re trained for it.
Once you qualify, there are regular exams once a year to renew your flying license, and they have high pass marks too. You need to study, and there’s always new information coming. You have briefings before every flight to refresh your knowledge, too.
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How long is the career?
I fly with some crew who have been there 14 or 15 years.
The good thing about Emirates is that your career can progress. You can fly as cabin crew, you could become a trainer, you could go into recruitment, have an office job in our HQ in Dubai, or even move to another country and work there through the airport.
You get options. It doesn’t have to change when you get married or have children, either. Family life has a big emphasis in Dubai. You are also guaranteed your job. The security is a big thing - the first contract is for three years.
What’s it like to live in Dubai?
As crew, we call Dubai the capital of the world. Everything is there. It’s so modern, so cosmopolitan; there are so many ex-pats there now and the Irish community is strong. We have GAA teams, and a huge Irish society.
Sure, It can get very hot – the hottest period lasts about eight weeks. The first year, I found it tough. But it got easier. Now it’s fine. I walk to my gym, do my running. Now, I’d have a Dubai summer over an Irish winter any day of the week!
It’s different coming from the West, of course, and I wasn’t very educated about Islam until I went to Dubai. You can be afraid of something you don't know, but learning about it was amazing. I have a lot of Arabic and Muslim friends.
That said, Dubai isn’t as strict as other Muslim countries. We are visitors, and we have to respect their rules. But also they respect that we live and work there. They look after us.
For us, Dubai is our home. We have Sunday lunch. We cook for each other. We go for a run, to the beach, or for coffee together. There are a lot of places we might know about that tourists don’t, because it has become our home.
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What's the hardest thing about the job?
That’s a good question. Probably not being able to go to events at home that you would like to. My nephew got Christened recently. I would love to have been there, but I wasn’t able to. You could be the other side of the world.
That said, when I lived in Australia, I missed everything. Now, I can get back for Christmas, weddings, a whole lot more. We do two flights a day into Dublin and with a 24-hour layover you’d be surprised what you can do. If I have days off in Dubai, I can always just jump on a flight and come home.
Home is where my heart is, and sometimes, people are surprised to hear I live in Dubai. ‘But you’re always at home!’ they say, and it’s true!
What's it really like working on a plane?
Our Emirates planes are huge. I once wore a stepper to count my steps, and I think I walked something like 4.5km in a flight! You’re always doing something.
But we’ll also sit down together, have lunch or a coffee or a chat when people are sleeping. I don’t ever feel claustrophobic. It’s our office! I came back from Milan recently, and I was sitting in my jump seat looking out the window. I could see all the city lights below and the stars were getting closer. It’s a nice place to be.
Our longest flight is 17.5 hours to Auckland. On long-hauls, we work the whole flight, but there is a rest strategy and full beds in special crew rest compartments, complete with crew pyjamas and movies! You can sleep for 4-5 hours, depending.
I’ve also met some of the most incredible people on board. We’re not robots. Emirates hires and recruits for our personalities. People could travel with us to the most amazing event in their life, or the saddest. We are there for them.
Give an example? We had this 92-year-old Irish woman coming from Singapore recently. She had been in Melbourne to see her great-granddaughter. It was her first time out of Ireland, at 92! She even had to get her first passport.
"You know, I have so many regrets in life," she said. "But the one I have now is that I didn’t do this years ago. I didn’t know that it’s like a hotel in the sky!"