Different in my day
Mother and daughter Debbie and Georgie Howells have both worked as cabin crew for several airlines, taking in places as diverse as Inverness and India and experiencing engine failure and medical emergencies along the way. With three decades between them, how do their experiences compare?
Debbie Howells, 56, joined the cabin crew for Britannia Airways in her 20s before working at British Airways for eight years
“Back in the 90’s, flying was still perceived as glamorous, and training included strict guidelines about uniform, make-up and jewellery”
“When a friend told me she’d applied for a summer job as a cabin crew member with Britannia Airways, I was quick to follow. I’d always loved flying as a passenger, and as a psychology and sociology student at Bath University I needed the extra cash. I was given a summer contract doing short-haul charter flights, and I soon realised I liked this way of life. A year later, I was offered a summer season with Monarch, and I loved every minute. After graduating, I applied to British Airways for a full-time job, initially working on short haul flights, but as soon as I had the opportunity, I switched to long haul. I was 23 and I wanted to see more of the world. I loved the thrill of getting off the plane and taking in the sights and sounds of a new place. Crew sometimes had one day off, sometimes several – it depended on the route, and in the eight years I was with British Airways, I flew around Europe and also to New York, Boston, Dallas, Orlando, St Lucia, Dubai, Oman, Hong Kong, Barbados, Pakistan, Mumbai and Delhi. Flying long haul often meant being away for five days and I made some really good friends, some of whom I’m still in touch with today. I loved the fact that there was no nine-to-five routine and no two months were ever the same. Flying has always been perceived as glamorous, with strict guidelines about uniform, make-up and jewellery, which was all part of the training. But in reality it is less so. It’s physically hard work and the hours are tiring. Luckily, though, when I was working, passengers were usually well behaved and good-mannered. But that’s not to say that it was without its hairy moments. After a night flight from the US, we’d strapped in for landing when I felt the wings rock. We were on a Boeing 747 and I could see how close to the ground we were. As cabin crew, you get very used to how an aircraft sounds and feels, and it seemed unusual. It wasn’t until I disembarked that I found out we’d lost an engine moments before touching down. The passengers were completely unaware, but it reminded me of our vulnerability. I think I was always aware of that, but you try not to dwell on it. On another flight, an elderly man passed out and we had to put a call out to see if there was a medic on board. Luckily for us – and the passenger – there was, as we’d had no first-aid training to help. Being away from home got more difficult for me. When I was 31, I had my daughter, Georgie, which changed everything. I didn’t want to be away form her but when I tried to transfer back to short haul, there were no vacancies. When she was six months old, I had to go back to my long-haul job, but I missed her so much that after a few months, I stopped working for BA. I didn’t keep my feet on the ground, though – during my years as cabin crew, I studied for my private pilot’s licence and qualified as a flying instructor in Sussex. I loved flying and enjoyed teaching people how to fly, which I did for two or three years until my son, Tom, was born. I loved my time as cabin crew, and Georgie and I talk about it a lot. Until recently, the world of flying hadn’t really changed – it was still exciting to see people heading off on holiday. But there were more seats on planes and fewer cabin crew. The standard required was still high, so it could be tough. I would usually work 35 hours a week, with a maximum of 45 hours, but Georgie’s hours have been so much more. The job gave me the chance to meet some wonderful people, make lifelong friends and see parts of the world that otherwise I might not have. I’ll never forget the incredible city lights, skies and cloud formations I saw from up high. I will always feel lucky to have seen a unique, beautiful view of the world.”
Debbie loved her time as cabin crew with BA and made many friends as well as seeing parts of the world she might never have encountered
Georgie Howells, 25, lives in West Sussex. She works for British Airways out of Gatwick, and says her choice of career was influenced by her mum’s time as cabin crew
“I often have to deal with groups of rowdy lads treating the plane like a house party and knocking back alcohol”
“My mum often used to reminisce about her time as cabin crew when I was growing up. She had lots of intriguing keepsakes from India and would tell me stories about how people lived in the Caribbean. It really captured my imagination. I felt a bit lost when I finished my A levels in art, photography and maths and my mum suggested I try it. In 2013, when I was just 18, I did an online assessment for easyJet, and then had to go for a face-to-face assessment, which I passed. Training took place over three weeks. It was fast-paced and included exams and practical sessions in a flight simulator. My first flight was to Inverness and I sat in the flight deck. From then on, I did short-haul flights, mainly to places in Europe. After working with easyJet for a year, I decided to take a break from flying to go to the University of Westminster where I studied commercial music business. But after six months, I realised I missed flying too much and left, taking a job flying long haul with British Airways. I felt a connection to my mum as we travelled the same routes, wore the same BA wings and had a similar uniform. I have been ticking off long-haul flights just as she did and have done many of the routes out of Gatwick, such as Cape Town, the Maldives and New York. We still need to look good, and the long-haul destinations do feel as glamorous as in my mum’s day, but there are so many people flying now and the antisocial behaviour seems more frequent. I often have to deal with groups of rowdy lads treating the plane like a house party and knocking back alcohol. Once, a passenger threatened to kill my male colleague while under the influence. We had to escort him to his seat and the police were waiting to arrest him when we landed. Like Mum, I have encountered engine failure, which is a not-so-subtle reminder that there is always the possibility of something going wrong, even though flying is still considered one of the safest ways to travel. We were on our way from Tenerife to Gatwick when, shortly after take-off, the engine started making juddering, banging noises and we were called into the cockpit by the pilot, who told us one of the engines had failed. The pilot made a very relaxed announcement, saying, “As you can hear, the right-hand engine is throwing its toys out of the pram. I’m sure you’ll all agree it’s not a good idea we take this back to Gatwick.” And instead we landed at the nearest airport. The passengers were scared, some were crying, and I felt cold with dread. But everyone applauded with relief when we landed, despite being in the Canary Islands instead of London. Another time, during a night flight, a passenger would not wake up and had actually fallen unconscious. I administered oxygen with a mask and an oxygen bottle and luckily he came round, but it was a nerve-racking experience. Unfortunately, I have now been furloughed due to the pandemic, but I am hoping to return to work as soon as the crisis is under control. When I am working, I don’t get as much time off as Mum did between shifts and work longer hours. It can make socialising hard, as you’re constantly dealing with jet lag. Thankfully, my boyfriend, Darren, is cabin crew too, so he is really understanding, and as I don’t have children yet I don’t feel the pull of home as much as Mum did. Occasionally, Darren and I get to fly together, and although time out is not as frequent when rostered, we did manage to get a trip to the Maldives together for three weeks, which was lovely. But the job is very tiring – sometimes, I can do six 12-hour flights in a row, which really messes with your body clock. However, it is a lot of fun too. Like Mum, I have made great friends, and I’ve seen so many beautiful places, and I love being able to talk to Mum about the job. Flying may be different in some ways now but it really is a lovely feeling to enjoy many of the elements my mum did when she was cabin crew.