Monday, November 18, 2013


Context:  this is a continuation of the "Interview Experience" post, where I chronicled my initial interview with Northwest Airlines.  A week has passed since the follow up interview and I was offered a job as a flight attendant.  I accepted, thinking that I would enjoy the opportunity of flying around the world while helping customers and then quit within a year or two.  This post talks about training and classmates.

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Flying time from San Diego International Airport to Minneapolis-St. Paul is roughly 4 hours. This was my first time riding a plane as an employee of Northwest Airlines.  It was a free ride and although I didn't have to pay, I had to dress up in a suit and tie with dress shoes since as a representatives of the airline, we had to look first class, even if we end up seated in coach.  I was able to grab the last empty seat.

"Luckily, I didn't spill any hot coffee on my passengers."

Upon arriving at MSP, I quickly gather my suitcase and head towards the taxi bay.  The directions I got in my letter from Northwest direct me to go to the Oaktree Apartments in the city of Edina, about 20 minutes away from the airport.  As I'm standing in line for a taxi, a young woman behind me asks if I'm headed to the Oaktree Apartments.  She's about my age, maybe older, Asian and also wearing a smart looking business suit.  I say yes and ask if she's a new hire for Northwest.  She smiles and says yes and introduces herself. Her name is Olivia.  She says that she remembered seeing me get on the plane last and thought that I was a new hire.  We share a taxi to the Oaktree Apartments.

On our way to the apartment complex, Olivia tells me a little bit about herself.  She's originally from San Francisco but currently lives near San Diego with her husband John.  John is a famous hockey player and plays for a team that I've never heard of but I nod my head anyway. He travels a lot and so when Olivia heard about the flight attendant position, she thought it would be a good way for her to travel with him when he was working.

I ask her if she had to talk about her best customer story at the interview and she said yes.  Olivia's parents are both Chinese but she was born and raised in San Francisco and so she only remembers speaking Chinese when growing up.  When I ask her if she's able to speak fluent Mandarin, she says that she's able to get her point across but I think she was just being modest.  For her best customer story, she talked about how, as Ms. Chinatown, she had to work on various public activities, from senior citizen groups to schools and radio and television performances and had to treat each group with respect and understanding, just as if they were her best customers.  I pretty much lost all concentration when she mentioned, almost offhandedly, that she was Ms. Chinatown.  My initial thought was "Wow, I'm in the same taxi with Ms. Chinatown.  That's like being with Ms. Universe!".  But, I listened to the challenges she faced as an ambassador to the city of San Francisco with both admiration and respect.  In hindsight, she seemed almost too overqualified to be a flight attendant.

The taxi enters a nice suburban area of Minneapolis and to me, Edina looked like a nice place to live.  The Oaktree Apartments seemed like any other apartment complex; a well appointed office that looked more like a hotel lobby was in front of us when the taxi dropped us off.  Olivia and I both went in and was given keys to our respective apartments.  When I got to my apartment, two other guys were already there.  Richard Hashimoto, a Japanese American dude from LA, was watching TV when I entered and he greeted with a firm handshake.  Mike Lee, a Korean guy who was in the kitchen also shook my hand and greeted me as well.  The apartment had two bedrooms, with two beds in each. Since Northwest Airlines firmly believes in the seniority system, Richard was the oldest (he was 25) so got a room for himself while Mike (24) and myself (21) shared the second bedroom.  Richard used to work at a supermarket while Mike used to work at an insurance company.  Both seem very easy going and after a couple of hours of talking with them, I know right off the bat that we were going to be fast friends. Down the hall from our room was Harry, a funny Chinese guy who wore glasses and had a very wanting-to-please attitude towards everything.  And, there was Steve the Mormon who spoke fluent Korean because he had done two missions in Seoul.  He was very popular with all of the girls.

Training went something like this:
  • 3 weeks of safety training, focusing on learning all of the safety features of each airplane Northwest has in service.
  • 3 weeks of service training, focusing on proper serving techniques, from first class all the way down to coach.  You also get to learn how to make yourself presentable.
  • Everyday, you take a quiz and at the end of each week, there is a final examination.  If you fail a final exam, you get kicked out.

Safety Training
During the first three weeks, we learned about safety techniques.  What to do on a wheels up landing (you do not deploy the overwing slides since it will deploy right into the adjacent slide), learn how to use all of the safety equipment (from fire extinguishes, CPR equipment, life vests to safety masks), and commands.  The commands I remember are "Come this way, move quickly, leave everything" and "Run, Jump, Help At The Bottom".  I'm sure that the commands have changed over the years but I still remember them.  At the end of each week, there was a final exam that everyone had to take.  For some folks, they were able to soak up every single safety detail and recall everything in an instant.  For others, like myself, I had to read, re-read and then try to remember everything.  I very much admired my roommate Mike who was able to learn everything once and felt that there was no need for study. Everyone was very smart and very motivated so almost everyone passed the test, including myself.  By the end of the third week, only a couple of trainees left the training program, either because they didn't pass the test or felt that being a flight attendant wasn't right for them. For me, I was having the time of my life.  

Like high school, cliques are created within our class and for me, I usually stayed with my small inner circle of friends.  With Richard, Mike, Olivia, and funny guy Harry, the time spent practicing our safety routines, learning the proper uses of the safety equipment and standard operation procedure on all airplane types made it worthwhile.  After training, we would get together and have dinners together, hang out, walk to the supermarket and just talk about all of the things that we left behind and all of things that were looking forward to doing.  I would often invite Steve the Mormon to join us but he would always politely refuse, often letting us know that he had other plans.  Harry would tell us that Steve was going out with a girl from another class.  I always found it interesting how Harry was able to get that kind of information, as if he was some kind of reporter, searching for juicy gossip.  Graduation was still three weeks away and none of us knew which base we would be assigned but we were all motivated to work hard, pass our exams but also have a good time.

Service Training
The last three weeks was focused on proper serving techniques.  I got to learn how to pour wine (the key is to twist the bottle when you're done pouring) as well learning how to pronounce Cabernet Sauvignon (red wine, often served with red meat) to chardonnay (white wine, often served with chicken and light meats).  I learned how to "drizzle" salad dressing instead of pour, the quickest way to serve three carbonated drinks at once (and it's true, Diet Coke is the slowest drink to serve since it takes for time for it to settle) and making sure that the food is served in a presentable fashion.  Speaking of presentable fashion, we were fitted for our uniform and taught grooming skills so that always looked first class (always clean shaven, hair properly combed and moussed, nails trimmed neatly).  We were also instructed on how not to step on people's hands when walking through the aisles.  It almost felt like being a fashion model.

After six weeks, everything that you learned from training culminates to a buddy ride, on-the-job training where you get to fly on a real airplane and serve real customers.  My training flight was LGA-DTW (LaGuardia International Airport, New York to Detroit, Michigan) with a flying time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, just enough time for a drink service.  Richard told me afterwards that on his training flight, he was pouring coffee over the passenger's lap (which is a no-no) and just when the airplane hit a pocket of turbulence, the coffee swirled in and out of his cup and into the passenger's lap.  The passenger didn't get angry and took it all in stride.  Richard, on the other hand, was freaked out and apologized a number of times to the passenger.  Luckily, I didn't spill any hot coffee on my passengers.  On the flight back, we had extra peanuts so I gave each of my passenger two bags of peanuts.  I don't think they even noticed.

When we finally reached the end of our six week training session, we were all happy to be graduating.  While the six weeks seemed to have flown by so quickly, it felt almost like a lifetime of creating new friends, building rock solid friendships while studying together with the shared goal of being a good flight attendant.  At the graduation ceremony, I hugged Olivia and mentioned that it felt like a lifetime ago when we shared the same taxi to the Oaktree Apartments.  I shook hands with Richard and mentioned that it must be a thrilling feeling to know that he'll be working on a Boeing 747-400 as flight attendants instead of working behind a cash register at a nearby supermarket.  He was looking forward to taking his parents to Hawaii. Mike Lee, the Korean guy who used to work at an insurance company, looked somewhat glum. When I asked him if he was alright, he looked at me with a serious look on his face and said, "Yeah.  I just can't believe that we're done with training."  I wasn't sure if he was happy or sad about it.  

The next day, we are told which base we would be assigned to.

Richard, Mike, Harry and Olivia are assigned the Boston base.  I'm assigned to New York. Boston international flights go to Europe (London-Gatwick, Paris and Amsterdam).  New York international flights to go Japan.  I am disheartened to know that all of the people I had in my inner circle were not coming with me to my new home. Everyone was very much excited and looking forward to their new home in Boston and for me, for the briefest of moments, I feel a sense of abandonment.  After all we've been through, I realize that what comes next is what I will have to do on my own.

That's when I hear someone say "Hey Scott".  When I look up, I see Steve the Mormon.  He says, "I guess it's just you and me going to New York.  I guess you can teach me how to speak some Japanese."  He smiles and shakes my hand.  I smile back and realize that it's not really abandonment or a feeling of separation.  It's just that uneasy, uneven feeling of change and growth, not just for me but for all of us.  I was happy that Richard, Mike, Harry and Olivia were going to Boston since now I can visit them and hear all of the great stories about traveling to Europe.  As for Steve and myself, we set our sights on New York City and on what the future holds for us.

[To be continued]

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