Breakfast in Paris and then a spot of shopping in New York? Two SWISS flight attendants tell us what their working day is really like.
Celia Jakob is 26, and has been with SWISS since 2012. She lives in Constance, and commutes to Zurich by train every day. “As a train commuter, it’s very easy to combine my place of work in Zurich with my home in Constance,” Celia finds. Colleague Wolfram Schillig has been with SWISS for over six years. In an interview, the two tell us what a day in their working life is like, and what it takes to be a flight attendant.
What made you decide to become a flight attendant?
Celia Jakob: I once read somewhere that we spend 40% of our lives working. So I asked myself whether I was actually enjoying this part of my life. I knew this was not the case in the job I had at the time. Once I had given the idea some consideration, I applied to train as a flight attendant. After all, I couldn’t think of anything better or more exciting than going to Zurich to work, and ending my working day in New York.
Wolfram Schillig: I’ve always been fascinated by working as a flight attendant. After a number of diversions and so-called coincidences, I found myself in this world and have been there ever since.
So what qualifications do you need if you want to be a flight attendant?
Celia Jakob: A good knowledge of English and German, a completed apprenticeship or higher secondary school qualification, be able to swim, at least 158 cm (5′ 2″) tall, and be naturally outgoing and friendly in your dealings with people from all over the world. Furthermore, you should be flexible and extremely service-minded.
Wolfram Schillig: And as well as having charisma and a well-groomed appearance, good physical and mental health are prerequisites for successful candidates. Constant time changes, changes in climate and night flights should not be too difficult to cope with.
So what advice would you have for an applicant?
Celia Jakob: Think about why you want to do this job and what you have to offer it – and above all, be yourself.
Wolfram Schillig: You have to like serving people, be able to cope well with stress – and above all you mustn’t have problems getting up in the morning! Flying is certainly not an easy job, but it brings constant pleasure and satisfaction, especially when customers thank you personally with a smile for particularly good service.
What characteristics should an applicant have?
Celia Jakob: Sociability, charm, resilience, flexibility and reliability.
Wolfram Schillig: Reliability, punctuality, be able to handle criticism, customer-orientated, have a high level of service-mindedness and be able to work as part of a team. All garnished with a pinch of warm-heartedness and empathy – most definitely important characteristics.
What opportunities are there for advancement?
Celia Jakob: As a flight attendant with SWISS, you have several options for advancement. After only a year you can apply to be a Maître de Cabine on short haul. There is also the option to become a flight attendant in First Class. Furthermore, every year there is the option to take the “Eidgenössische Berufsprüfung”, the professional examination, which can increase your career options both within the airline and in other professions. After a certain time, there is also the option to become an instructor on-board and train new colleagues.
Wolfram Schillig: SWISS offers plenty of opportunities for advancement for trainee flight attendants. To name but a few, there are the specialists who are responsible for the high standards of service and quality in First Class and for training new colleagues, and then the Maître de Cabine, who is responsible for managing the entire crew on-board. And if you are interested in a career on the ground as well as flying, there are lots of professional teams that offer active involvement in the fields of product, service, training and recruitment. Furthermore, at Swiss Aviation Training there is the option of training new colleagues as a trainer in safety or service. SWISS is an employer that actively supports its staff in their individual basic and further training, not only in the air, and offers them help and support in achieving their personal goals. There are plenty of possibilities, and they can be discussed with your line manager at any time and implemented.
What has changed about the job in recent years?
Celia Jakob: SWISS has bought two new aircraft types (the Boeing 777 and the Bombardier C series), and thereby modernised the fleet in a very short time. We need lots of new aircrew for the new aircraft, all of whom have to be trained, but all the others have to under conversion training as well. Plus our route network has been increased in recent years, which I think is extremely positive because it means there are lovely new cities to explore.
Wolfram Schillig: Flying has changed a lot in the last few decades. It used to be considered something special, but today the aeroplane is just another form of transportation, and is a regular part of many people’s lives. Compared with the early days of commercial aviation, working above the clouds has undoubtedly lost some of its gloss. Competitive pressure on the market also plays a part. None the less, it is still possible for us to offer individual and unforgettable customer service, not least because the Swiss cross still stands for maximum quality in service and hospitality – and that has not changed in any way.
What motivates you to do this job day after day?
Celia Jakob: The many different people I encounter every day. Every single time, I find it is a valuable enrichment. Then there are the major cities in the world that I still haven’t explored no matter how many times I’ve already been there. And, of course, that the sun is always shining above the clouds no matter how hard it’s raining or snowing on the ground.
Wolfram Schillig: Above all, it’s the variety that makes the job so interesting. No two days are the same. Not only do you work with a different crew every day, but you also welcome new customers on board every day.
What is the worst cliché about the profession?
Celia Jakob: That we are only service staff above the clouds. There is so much more to it than just serving meals and drinks. Above all, flight attendants are responsible for safety on-board.
Wolfram Schillig: I’m not aware of any clichés, because to me they’re the same as preconceptions. In personal talks with flight attendants, it is often surprising to find out just what professional experiences these colleagues already have behind them. It’s not unusual to find people who used to be anything from ballet dancers to chefs to lawyers on board. All in all, we are not only responsible for the well-being and safety of our guests, but we are also able to provide advice and support with other problems and questions.
Which cliché is true?
Celia Jakob: That we really do lead a kind of mini jet-set life that allows us to lie in the sun on a beach in Miami in the middle of winter, or can have our seasonal wardrobe tailored for us at special prices in Shanghai, or that we really did knock back a “Singapore Sling” (or two) in Singapore last week. These are facts, not clichés.
What has been your most bizarre experience on a flight so far?
Celia Jakob: Repeatedly having to tell a passenger on a return flight from Bangkok that he was on a flight to Zurich and not to Canada.
Wolfram Schillig: My strangest experience so far has been trying to retrieve a cat that managed to get out of its bag on a night flight in Economy Class. It wasn’t easy for the owner to find it in the dark.
And what has been your loveliest experience on a flight so far?
Celia Jakob: The best things for me are the fabulous sunrises that colour the horizon pink and gold in the mornings before the breakfast service.
Wolfram Schillig: Being able to welcome lots of well-known people in person and ensuring they are happy and comfortable on board.
Has your perception of travel changed since it became part of your daily life?
Celia Jakob: Yes; in my eyes, the world has got smaller. It doesn’t take long to get to completely different places. And I have realised that no matter who you are and where you are in the world, we all have much more in common with each other than we have differences.
Wolfram Schillig: To me, the aeroplane has become a normal, everyday form of transport. I have become accustomed to so many things, and therefore they have become habits.
How tiring are night flights?
Celia Jakob: Very, but we have a break of between 1 and 3 hours in shifts. On long flights, we have a “crew bunk” where we can lie down and get some sleep. Which is always good! However, while one shift is on its break, somehow you have to stay awake. Sometimes it’s difficult, but you get used to it over time. I find it far easier now than I did in the early days.
Wolfram Schillig: I still find them very tiring. I prefer daytime flights because I can be involved with the customers all the time. When most of the passengers are asleep on a night flight and there’s nothing for us to prepare, the night can be long. Time passes really slowly – but you get used to it.
How do you deal with jet lag? Do you have any tips?
Celia Jakob: Once I get to my destination, I sleep for 3 or 4 hours solid. That refreshes me and helps me to get into the local day/night pattern. If I can’t sleep at night, I just rest. I have found that it has almost the same effect on me as sleeping. The secret is simply to switch off your mind and stop thinking while you rest.
Wolfram Schillig: I have the tremendous good fortune not to suffer from jet lag. It would just be nice to catch up on missed sleep. Sadly, there’s no general tip on how to deal with jet lag. Everyone just has to work out what works best for them. One good piece of advice that I was given was to change to the time at our destination while still on the way there.
What is your favourite destination?
Celia Jakob: Hong Kong! I love Hong Kong.
Wolfram Schillig: My favourite destination is the USA. All the SWISS destinations there are on my list of favourites.
Which destination do you fly to most frequently?
Celia Jakob: You can make requests for every new monthly rota, to a specific city, a particular direction (east or west) or particular continent. I like to go to America in the spring and summer and to Asia in the rest of the year, so it’s always warm and yet there’s plenty of variety.
Can you see yourself doing this job for much longer?
Celia Jakob: Oh yes, most definitely. It’s also perfectly feasible to do it as a mother if you have the right support. I know several mothers who flew less while the children were still very small, but then increased their hours. SWISS offers a number of part-time options.
What do your friends think about you and your job?
Celia Jakob: There’s always a “wow!” effect whenever I say I’m a flight attendant. My friends think it’s great. I have had to learn, though, that I can’t always talk about my travels when I’m with my friends and that it is important to maintain interests and friendships outside the aviation world. It might sound odd, but it’s easy to lose perspective in that respect.