September 20, 2013 7:10 pm

Flights of experience

Think about the opportunity losses with putting older crew out to pasture and hiring people who don’t have the wisdom of years

How often do you settle in for a flight only to be told a few minutes past your departure time that you’re delayed because the aircraft was late inbound / the aircraft has a fault / a passenger hasn’t shown up and their bags need to be offloaded / there are issues with slot allocations?

Late last week I sat on my Finnair flight from Helsinki bound for Tokyo and, in the absence of an announcement from the crew, wondered why we hadn’t pushed back at the advertised hour. At first I thought they might have had to take on extra fuel to deal with all of the mail bags that I’d checked in (full of Fast Lane post – your questions answered next weekend) but I noticed the fuel truck had already left. I then assumed it might be the weather en route but a quick peek online didn’t show anything too menacing over Russia so I decided to ask the flight attendant if we were in for a serious delay.

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Tyler Brûlé

Just as I was about to signal to one of the Japanese crew walking down the aisle, I felt the jolt of the tug connecting with the nose-wheel, the front of the aircraft gently rise and the A340 start to slowly move backwards. I followed a similar movement and leaned back into my seat, plumped-up the pillow and nestled into the sidewall. I tried my best to stay awake, and almost made it to the point where the aircraft was about to line up on the departure runway, but I soon joined the rest of the Japanese passengers in the cabin and drifted off well before we had cleared the city’s northern suburbs.

Thirty minutes later I woke up to the chattering and clinking of Iittala glasses rolling past on the bar trolley and was greeted by a well-groomed, smiling-yet-slightly-intimidating-looking Finnish purser. As she went about letting the gentleman next to me sample the red wines on offer, she asked me what I wanted and also informed me that the galley was a little bit understocked due to a round of industrial action by the catering supplier.

“They called a one-day strike and this is what we’re left with,” she explained, motioning to a tray topped with lurid cardboard containers – designed to distract from the food inside. “I’ve been flying for a very long time and this is just awful. I feel so bad serving this to passengers – especially the Japanese.”

For the next hour the kindly flight attendant and her crew did everything possible to divert attention from the rations that had been loaded on board. Glasses were refilled every few minutes. Extra helpings of Fazer chocolate were offered. And I believe the schnapps and cognac trolley did at least two tours with offers to sample the special Finnish berry liqueur and more chocolates to match. With the service complete, the crew tucked everyone into bed, dimmed the lights and drew the galley curtains.

Before drifting off again I vaulted over the gentleman next to me to get to the aisle and made my way to the forward loo to brush my teeth. As I stood waiting in the galley I complimented the purser on her elegant handling of the situation.

“You know, I love this job. I’ve been doing it for over 30 years,” she explained. “But it really hurts when you don’t have the tools to do your job properly.”

I asked her if she felt the flying experience was better or worse these days – for both her passengers and colleagues. “I think in many ways it’s better because there are proper flat beds and more entertainment but I remember the days when we didn’t have business class and just a small first class. Wow. It was amazing. We used to have a proper roast beef trolley and there was full caviar service. In those days we only flew to Tokyo once a week, so it meant we were there for a full seven days,” she said, beaming.

At this point a colleague joined in and said how she used to fly on the Caravelle, the French-built jet airliner first flown in 1955. “Can you imagine? We didn’t even have overhead lockers then – just a shelf. Quite amazing to think how it used to be. But this is good, too. Today we just do one night in Asian cities and we can be back in Helsinki – it allows for a more normal life.”

I walked back to my seat trying to recall the last time I talked to airline crew who were proud of their jobs and had such a degree of pride in their carrier.

I also tried to remember the last time I’d met a flight attendant who had been flying for over 30 years and still saw the joy in service and seeing the world. As airline boards are quick to put older crew out to pasture and offer cheaper contracts to both younger and non-national crew, they might want to think about the opportunity losses that come with hiring people who are not attached to the flag on the tail, lack a depth of experience to be proper diplomats and simply don’t have the wisdom of years.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

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