Gabi Khairallah is sitting, checklist before him, pen poised. "Is the skirt a bit short?" he wonders before giving the hem a sharp tug and eyeing the result. "No, is good. Always button the jacket," he chides. "The blouse is perfect, the hair is good but we know that," he beams coyly. We know the hair is good because half an hour or so earlier it was Khairallah, with all his 17 years of experience as a purser and trainer for Emirates' main fleet, who pulled my hair back into a tight bun and unloaded a can of hairspray onto it. "And now you see how important is the lipstick, yes? Perfect."
I blink my mascara-laden lashes in relief and smile my red lacquered smile. I have just passed the hair and grooming section of the Emirates Airline cabin crew training. The studio in Emirates Aviation College, Dubai, – one of three identical rooms in which this part of the training takes place – is all sleek, reflective surfaces, trays of Clarins make-up and mirrors wreathed round with light bulbs. It is the most glamorous part of the college, casting the stewardesses as starlets and their few male counterparts as clean shaven matinee idols with strictly monitored amounts of hair product. Two to three weeks into the new recruits' seven-and-a-half week training, this is the day they get to put on their uniform for the first time and the day on which they are taught hair and make-up, Emirates style. It is, I discover, a militaristic art.
For a moment, as I stand in front of Khairallah, it strikes me that this is all only a girdle snap away from the days depicted in HBO's Pan Am. The new series, billed the Mad Men of the skies, follows the fortunes of a group of the airline's stewardesses. The first scenes show them being weighed in (an indignity we are not forced to endure though vital statistics are taken at the application stage) and having their uniform inspected by beady-eyed purser Miss Havemeyer.
I bite a crimson lip (Clarins No. 716 to be exact) as Khairallah fusses over the precise angle of my hat. I am trying to silence the echo of Miss Havemeyer's opening line to new recruit Laura Cameron after her picture appears on the cover of Life magazine. "One million copies sold and your hat is askew." I can imagine Khairallah being every bit as withering.
Four decades may have passed but that era was the one in which the classic image of the air stewardess was truly defined. She was, by virtue of her contractual obligations, always single and under 32. She was there to serve the primarily male business customers with the winning subservience of a 50s housewife, while provocatively uniform clad. "It's not you," a colleague explains to Laura Cameron in that opening show. "It's the promise of you." Playing on that truth, the long-defunct US National airline ran a series of adverts featuring their stewardesses and the slogan, "Fly Me." Continental painted their aircraft tail fins gold and had cabin crew exclaiming, "We really move our tails for you."
Today cut-price airlines and security measures have taken much of the glamour from air travel and replaced it with the ritual humiliations of shoe and belt removal, an unseemly scrum for a seat and overpriced, sub-standard sandwiches solid enough to snap the plastic cutlery that has long since replaced silverware. Cabin crew in some of these companies must pay for their own uniform and trudge the aisles disconsolately in their DayGlo polyester tunics, trying to flog as much in-flight "hospitality" as possible, as their own pay is often supplemented by the commission. Cramped, uncomfortable and stressed, it is small wonder that tales of air rage and drunken disgraces abound... and that's just the crew. Last year Steven Slater, a JetBlue attendant, famously "handed in his notice" on the tarmac of John F Kennedy International Airport after a customer stood up to get his luggage too soon. Slater launched a four-letter diatribe, grabbed a beer from the drinks trolley and promptly slid down the emergency chute.
But for all this, on some level, the nostalgia-steeped notion of the air stewardess remains; that potent, contradictory mix of liberated career girl and geisha of the skies. Fixed in the psyche it is that image, with all its connotations of global travel and excitement, - "Buckle Up Adventure Calls," ran Pan Am's recruiting motto - that is at least partially responsible for the more than 400 new recruits who will enter Emirates Training College next month and the month after and the month after that.
Last year 64,000 hopefuls applied for a position at the airline of which only 3,200 were successful.
According to Catherine Baird, senior vice president of cabin crew training, it is a bit of a mixed blessing. Image does matter. Every member of Emirates air crew is, after all, the face of the company, the brand personified. But that image of the air stewardess with her immaculate make-up and pencil skirt comes hand in hand with a sort of cultural pat on the head and dismissal as a mere "trolley dolly." "How hard can it be," the argument runs, "to ask if you'd like milk and sugar with that, at 35,000ft?"
Baird, a former teacher from Australia who flew long-haul with British Airways and worked for lines including Star Alliance and Gulf Air before joining Emirates six years ago, is used to batting back such views as prejudice based on ignorance.
She says, "Most of the time what customers see is only a tiny fraction of what's going on - you see the crew gliding around like swans, not the frantic paddling that's going on to make that possible."
I have just spent a week going through an intensive version of the Emirates training, getting a small taste of the various elements that make up the cabin crew course. For my part I have emerged qualified only in the heavy application of make-up and frankly with a slight fear of flying. (When it comes to flight it turns out that a little knowledge, combined with an overactive imagination, really is a dangerous thing. I emerge from the flight simulator physically unscathed but my head full of emergency scenarios I'd never previously considered.) On the flip-side I also have a new respect for those who go through the course and who, having done so, still actually want to do the job.
Every Sunday a new batch of recruits arrives at Emirates Aviation College. They do so from all over the world. On my first day I am told that 120 countries are represented in the cabin crew demographic. By day number four that has risen incrementally with every person to whom I speak and stands at a total of 134. Having sat in on the classes I can believe it: of the first class of 29 newbies, six claim English as their mother tongue. They come from Malaysia, Lebanon, Germany, Japan, China, Serbia, the USA, Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Russia, Kenya... think of a country and it is probably represented. Some have worked for other airlines before, but for the vast majority this is a new career. The average intake age for Emirates is 26 with new recruits falling into two major categories. They are either fresh from college (the minimum age is 21) or they have reached a pre-marriage, pre-children impasse and are keen to travel the world and shake things up before either comes along to complicate things.
On day one I am told that the latest recruits include a criminologist, a gemologist, a nurse, a hotel manager, a police officer and a medic of some description.
Whatever their reasons there is an appealing enough structure of perks - paid-for housing, cheap flights, world travel - and promotion prospects. After 18 months crew can progress to Business Class. Another 18 months and they can move to First Class and apply for senior flight steward/stewardess status, the next step from there is promotion to purser, and the timescale for this varies case by case.
From the moment the recruits arrive their every waking moment - work and play - sees them absorbed into the Emirates brand. They live in one of the company's 46 buildings in Dubai. Each morning between 7.00 and 7.30am company buses disgorge recruits at the college doors in the thousands.
For the first two to three weeks they are known simply as Ab Initios (beginners), identified not so much by the uniform they are given - black trousers, red polo shirt - as by the iconic one they are denied. As for their mother tongue, whatever it may be, it will come second to a plethora of company jargon and abbreviation. They are taught by SFSs (Senior Flight Stewards and Stewardesses) and will take courses including GMT (Group Medical Training) and SEP (Safety Evacuation Procedure). They will spend hours aboard a CST (Cabin Service Trainer), learn AVSEC (Aviation Security) including ART (Advanced Restraint Techniques) and undergo that all important I & U (Image and Uniform). As an outsider unfamiliar with these acronyms it is possible to have an entire conversation regarding timetabling and come away knowing less than you did at the outset. Which is basically what happens to me during my first meeting with Ms Baird as she explains the course I will be following. Still, how hard can it be...?
First up is Induction. It is already underway by the time I slip into the classroom and Sonya Gopaul, trainee specialist in service training, is addressing the question, "What is Culture?" Behind her a PowerPoint display bears a quotation from Dutch psychologist and anthropologist Geert Hofstede: "Culture is a way of life of a group of people - the behaviours, beliefs, values and symbols that they are taught from the moment they are born and passed on by communication and imitation from one generation to the next."
A click of the mouse and up pops something called The Emotional Iceberg. "What do we think this means?" Gopaul asks everybody and nobody in particular. Somebody at the back mutters something about the Titanic before Gopaul goes on to explain that it's all to do with what is seen and what is not seen. "We mustn't make assumptions," she says, "When dealing with customers, whatever their behaviour, it's our job to find out what lies beneath."
This is all to do with Emotional Intelligence, something on which the the Ab Initios are asked to work by naming the emotions they perceive conveyed in various pictures. As an exercise it certainly throws up some surprising offerings. One picture in particular - that of a man, head in hands - is identified as showing an emotional spectrum that ranges spectacularly from "happy" through "bored" to "suspicious of his wife."
Gopaul hands over the class to Kim Hoshong, a 48 year old former steward who flew for 13 years and, one suspects, misses it still. "When you are in the cabin you are on stage," he says. "It is a performance and you are the stars." This pleases everybody greatly.
Later that day and the show in question is a disaster movie aboard one of the vast simulators housed around a swimming pool so that crew can practise ditching on water. The hulls of the aircraft - each model flown in main-fleet is represented - are life sized and 100 per cent accurate inside and out. Biljana Popovic from Serbia is in charge of the afternoon and this section which usually takes place in week two of training. Day by day the safety procedures of each model (the Airbus 330/343 and 345, the double decker Airbus A380 and the Boeing 777) are learned, practised and tested.
I'm not entirely clear what our destination is but we are not going to get there as, shortly after "take off," the flight hits turbulence, drops and lurches violently, and the cabin starts slowly filling with smoke. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is an emergency announcement and we will be making an emergency landing on water in 30 minutes." There is a fair bit of shouting as everybody on board is instructed to put on their life jackets. Recruits take turns playing passengers, replaying the scenario until every class member has had a chance to act as crew. I am initially drafted in as an able bodied passenger there to open the emergency door should the cabin crew member be rendered unable. It had never occurred to me there might be this much warning in the event of an emergency. Thirty minutes to work up a panic? I don't like that one bit.
Still the Ab Initios remain professional, if a bit shouty, until everybody is safely dispatched down the emergency chute which then turns into a raft to be cast adrift. Before leaving the aircraft the crew must take the survival kit stowed beneath their jump seat and including food rations, a pump to desalinate water, purifying tablets and a knife to cut the safety slide free from the presumably sinking plane. The safety procedures are constantly reviewed and revised. Twice a year any revisions which become permanent are issued as new pages to be included in the ring-binder manual which staff must carry their whole career and on which they will be tested before every single flight. Two wrong answers and you can remain on board but you are not allowed to carry out any key safety roles, a report will be lodged and a more rigorous test carried out when back on the ground.
As Baird points out: "Who are you going to turn to when something goes wrong and you need out? The primary purpose of cabin crew is safety." To that end cabin crew must renew their General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) issued licence every year, returning to the college annually for a two day refresher course. Industry standards dictate that crew must be able to evacuate a craft in just 90 seconds. I'm not entirely sure I could remove my shoes that quickly.
Over the next few days comes medical training - resuscitation techniques with the added challenges of cramped conditions and safety considerations (combine the spark of a defibrillator's charge with the seep of oxygen from a breathing mask and a drop in the patient's vital stats can quite suddenly become the least of your worries) - and security. Here, trainees are shown how to identify an "endangering passenger" - somebody whose actions threaten the safety of the aircraft, crew, other passengers or themselves - and how to take them down.
The class is taught by Natalie Daher, a rather heady combination of air stewardess with Emirates main-fleet and a former karate world champion. She lectures the class on the power of pressure points and of, "attacking them with full force." It isn't a matter of size she explains - she herself is fiercely tiny - but technique. Get it right, hit several pressure points at once, and the passenger "will be in a world of pain and will not know where it is coming from." Blimey.
Where are those pressure points, I enquire. "There," comes the answer complete with demonstration as she presses a point between my shoulder blades and spine that hovers just on the cusp of the pleasure/pain boundary. "But you must do it harder," she smiles. "Or it is a massage."
Day three and I am well into service aboard a simulated flight to Sydney. As flight experiences go it is entirely realistic. I am eating a meal I suppose to be lunch though it is 11am and have just discovered the entertainment system doesn't work. To be fair to Emirates it isn't meant to. Posing as a particularly demanding customer, purser Prabodh Singh puts the trainees through their paces. It is this batch's penultimate week and their confidence and competence is high. They are quizzed about the Emirates reward schemes, about visa requirements, brands of liquor available on board and between each response Singh reminds them to hold the glass correctly (at the bottom) when serving a drink, to place the coaster neatly and to turn the bottle or can so that the brand name faces the customer. "It is all detail, detail, detail," he explains. "That is the difference between an average flight and an exceptional one."
Nowhere is that attention to detail more deliberately apparent than Image and Uniform. The standards for male and female uniform run across two pages in the training manual. Hats should be worn centralised and tilted slightly forward, the blouse should be tucked loosely into the waistband and all buttons fastened, the jacket should be fully buttoned at all times, nails neatly manicured (clear, French or deep red, nothing else). For men the tips of their ties must touch the belt buckle, trouser hems must sit on the mid-rise of the foot and concealer is the only make-up permitted. But all of this barely scratches the scrupulously polished surface.
Issued with my uniform – a unique privilege I am told that no non-Emirates employee has ever been granted (gulp) – I am immediately aware of a change of atmosphere in the corridors of Aviation College. As a plain clothes observer it seemed a rather relentlessly upbeat place – a cross between Starship Troopers and The OC. As a uniformed "recruit" I am judged according to standards of which I immediately fall short. I am politely informed that I am carrying the handbag incorrectly (it must be over the shoulder not dangling by the side of my legs). My sunglasses have no business perched on my head and I must not use my mobile phone. My large white watch is non-regulation and the rock on my finger is definitely unacceptable (the only rings allowed are plain bands). Heading up to the seventh floor canteen – a place full of red-lipped girls and snake-hipped boys – a "fellow student" offers me a kirby grip to tether the hair that falls over my face. I feel indignant and apologetic all at once.
On the morning of Image and Uniform class I have deliberately applied three layers of foundation where usually I wear none. Yet after a friendly "hello", Sarah Barton, the personable training specialist tasked with the not inconsiderable challenge of bringing me up to Emirates standard, tells me, "You're going to need a lot more make-up."
After sitting through the theory - skin-care, cleansing, acceptable colour palettes (for eye shadow that's cream through to espresso...basically any shade that could be sold as a beverage in a coffee shop) - I dutifully shovel it on, only to be told repeatedly that I need more - much, much more.
But then, fight it as some may, this is what it really comes down to. This is the only bit that you can guarantee anybody truly sees. For all the training - and it is considerable - this painted-on facade and the immaculate uniform is the first thing any customer notices and, bar disasters, it will be the image that they carry with them. As Baird puts it, "Our cabin crew are like those really expensive boxes of chocolates. They're all beautiful. They're all in their wrappers. They're all different. They're not the cookie-cutter girl of some airlines. But they have an iconic look."
Customers may benefit from the "Service Personality" as defined by Emirates (Cosmopolitan, Personal, Considerate, Pioneering and Thorough) but it is the shimmer and the gloss of crew members that makes an impact, fuels a fantasy and propels the "trolley dolly" cliché from one decade to the next. It is a backhanded compliment, but it is a compliment nevertheless - this consistent underestimating of both the role and the calibre of the person carrying it out.
"In my experience," Baird reflects, "The more elegant and effortless something looks the more skill and talent has gone into perfecting that image. But you know that now, don't you?"
Famous former trolley dollies
Carole Middleton The mother of the Duchess of Cambridge worked as an air hostess for Britsh Airways. She gave up her job with BA when she was pregnant with Kate in 1981. She could no longer fly, so started making party bags for children's parties, which she sold to friends and neighbours. The rest, as they say, is history.
Evette Branson Richard Branson's mother became an air hostess after the Second World War with British South American Airlines (BSAA), flying in Lancastrians and Avro Yorks. It was an extremely sought after and glamorous job at the time, which you were only eligible to apply for if you were pretty, unmarried and between 23 and 27 years old. You also had to speak Spanish and be trained as a nurse, neither of which Evette could claim, but she managed to blag her way in anyway and was a great success.
Lady Bamford OBE Married to Sir Anthony Bamford, chairman of the construction giant JCB, this reluctant former trolley dolly runs a super-chic food and retail business and mixes in only the most illustrious of social circles. She has consistently refused to confirm her former career. Rumour has it though that British snobbery is such that when she walks into a room a whisper of "doors to manual" can sometimes be heard.
Brian Dowling The Ultimate Big Brother winner is the only male on our list, and also the only "Trolley Dolly" (as he describes himself) to have gone back to his profession having found fame. But he is now a full-time TV presenter. He worked as an air steward for the budget airline Ryanair.
Trolley dolly terminology
Spinner A passenger who boards late and spins around looking for his seat
Crumb crunchers Children
Gate lice Passengers who rush to the gate just before boarding so they can be first on the plane
George Autopilot; "I'll let George take over"
Working the village Working in economy class
Landing lips Female passengers put on their landing lips when they use lipstick just before landing
Two-for-one special When a plane touches down when landing, then bounces up, then touches down again.
Jump seat confessions When a flight attendant you just met tells you his or her entire life story while sitting in the jump seat
Slam clicker A flight attendant who never goes out with the crew on overnight stays, just stays in their room