Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Business Jet Charter Safety: Cabin crew issues

by B. N. Sullivan

Back in early 2005, I wrote a piece [published elsewhere] titled 'When is a Flight Attendant Not a Flight Attendant?'  The short answer to that question is "when he or she is a 'cabin server' on a business aircraft." The article addressed the issue of 'cabin servers' who work on privately owned or chartered business jets. It happens that, in the United States, individuals may work as servers in the cabin of such aircraft without having been formally trained in safety procedures, including aircraft evacuation.

Legally, cabin servers may  be on board business jets to serve passengers, but , in contrast to Flight Attendants, they have no mandated safety function, and may not legally be listed as crew on the manifest.  In fact, they must be listed as passengers.

As I wrote in 2005, this practice can be dangerous:
[The title] "Flight Attendant" a has come to be used generically to refer to a person who works in the cabin of an aircraft.  Some aircraft owners and charter operators therefore often refer to any cabin personnel as "Flight Attendants."  The trouble arises in the admittedly rare instance of an emergency aboard the aircraft.  The passenger -- naive to the difference between a fully qualified Flight Attendant and a cabin server -- may logically assume that the person working in the cabin is indeed trained to take charge in an emergency.  That passenger, conditioned by the reality of airline experience, where all Flight Attendants are in fact "real" Flight Attendants by law, will look to the cabin server for leadership, and will have an expectation of skills and competencies that the cabin server may not, in fact have.

A clear illustration comes to us in a February 2005 accident in which a chartered executive jet crashed on takeoff from Teterboro, New Jersey.  Eleven people were aboard the aircraft: eight passengers, two pilots, and a young woman who was working as a cabin server.  No lives were lost in that accident, but several people were seriously injured.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has just released its report on that accident.  They concluded that the primary cause of the accident was improper loading of the aircraft -- violations of what pilots refer to as 'weight and balance.' The NTSB report cited numerous other factors that contributed to the accident, and to injuries suffered by those on the aircraft.

Some of the injuries to the passengers were caused because very basic safety issues in the cabin were overlooked by the crew. An article about the report on the Airport Business website says:
The NTSB also found the cabin hostess did not follow FAA procedures, which caused glassware to injure passengers during the accident, and the plane's seatbelts were tucked under its seats, so passengers could not strap themselves in. Two passengers were thrown into the aisle during the accident.
A properly trained Flight Attendant would have provided the passengers with a safety briefing, for openers.  Passengers on this aircraft had not received such a briefing.

A Flight Attendant would have insured that the passengers were wearing their seatbelts for takeoff.  Some of the passengers on this flight were not properly restrained, and were injured as a result.

A Flight Attendant would have cleared the cabin of breakable glassware and china before the aircraft got underway.  Two passengers were cut by broken glass in the cabin.

Properly trained Flight Attendants insure that paths to exits on aircraft are kept clear, and they know how to quickly open doors and any other escape hatches on an aircraft.  They know how to evacuate an aircraft quickly and safely.

As a part of their pre-flight checks, Flight Attendants make sure that emergency equipment in the cabin is in place and operating properly.  They know how to fight fires aboard an aircraft, and how to tend to injuries and medical emergencies.

This ill-fated flight did not have a Flight Attendant aboard.   The young woman working as a server in the cabin was untrained in safety procedures.  She unwittingly (we assume) contributed to the passengers' injuries because of her lack of knowledge about very basic safety issues.

I'm not pointing a blameful finger at the cabin server.  I'm not even saying that there should be no cabin servers who are not trained in safety procedures (although I would prefer that all personnel working aboard any aircraft receive such training).

What I'm trying to point out is that if a cabin server looks like a Flight Attendant -- and is perceived by the passengers as a Flight Attendant, then either she or he should be a fully trained Flight Attendant -- or else the passengers should be made aware of the fact that the server is not trained in safety procedures.  Then, at least, the passengers would know that they were essentially on their own in an emergency, with no expectation that the cabin server would direct them or look out for their safety.

A sore point with a lot of  real Flight Attendants -- including those who work on executive jets -- is that they are perceived only as flying waiters and waitresses, when in fact they see safety assurance as their most crucial role on board an aircraft.  Yes, they serve meals and attend to passenger comfort -- on commercial airline flights as well as on corporate jets.  But should an in-flight emergency arise, service is the least of anyone's worries, and the safety skills of the Flight Attendant are what will count to prevent injuries and save lives.

Apparently this notion is not lost on the NTSB.  As a result of their investigation of the Teterboro accident, the NTSB made several recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Among those was this item:
  • Requiring that any cabin personnel on board Part 135 flights who could be perceived by passengers as equivalent to a qualified flight attendant receive basic FAA-approved safety training in a least the following areas (incomplete safety briefing was giving on accident flight): preflight briefing and safety checks; emergency exit operation; and emergency equipment usage. This training should be documented and recorded by the Part 135 certificate holder.
[For those not fluent in aviation lingo, 'Part 135' refers to the section of the Federal aviation regulations under which executive jet charters operate.]

In sum, just like the folks at the NTSB, I'd love to see all cabin personnel receive basic FAA-approved safety training before they are allowed to work aboard an aircraft.

Who knows? One of these days, perhaps  the FAA will do the right thing on this issue.

Sources: Improper Loading Caused Crash of Corporate Jet in Teterboro, New Jersey, NTSB Finds - NTSB News
NTSB Finds Lax Oversight in Teterboro Charter Crash - Airport Business