One of Barbara Szep’s earliest memories is the acrid smell of kerosene that filled her nostrils as she boarded her first flight from her native Hungary to Greece when she was 7 years old.
"Once I smelt the kerosene, that was it – I fell in love," she says, with a laugh. "I loved everything about flying – the uniform, the adventure – and I knew I wanted to do that. Back then, flying was still such a luxury to us in Hungary."
Szep, 30, who is from the small western village of Bak, studied aviation, then went to flight attendant school in Budapest. Even then, she never imagined she would one day be among the first people on the planet to work as a butler in the air.
Szep now serves some of the elite in the Etihad Residence, a three-room on-board suite for up to two guests, which launched in 2014 and remains the world’s only flying suite, taking first class to new heights.
The 11.6-square-metre space is located at the front end of the A380's upper deck. It has a private living room, bathroom and double bedroom. It's laid out with a Poltrona Frau leather sofa in the living area, a private minibar and 27 to 32-inch TV screens.
Beds are made up with Swedish linen from Duxiana and four feather pillows, as well as a giant seat belt to ensure guests aren't woken up by turbulence.
Privacy and convenience are key; on landing, guests can have clothes pressed and readied as they wait in the arrivals lounge, where all the final touches are put in place. Each suite comes with its own personal butler, and they're the ones who make sure every little job is done. Szep says a day's work might include polishing shoes, fixing loose buttons, ordering guests' favourite flowers, being someone's TV-watching companion or even lending a sympathetic ear.
Szep's first job was as ground staff in a Hungarian airport. Soon after, she travelled to London and found a role in hotel housekeeping at the age of 22. "It wasn't easy," she says. "That first month was very tough." She spoke no English, but still hoped to train for the role with a commercial airline she had always wanted.
Now, as one of roughly 53 Savoy Butler Academy-trained staff serving Etihad's 10 A380s with the Residence on board, Szep travels between London, Sydney, Paris, Seoul and New York. Her day starts with a briefing, which covers her guests' preferences, whether or not the trip is their first Residence experience and a refresher on greeting protocol. This includes understanding when to use "your highness" versus "your majesty", when to bow and when to shake hands.
“I have to really care about the details,” she explains. For example, she needs to know how some guests like their cutlery to be laid out or if they prefer to have breakfast in bed.
"My job is to observe, and within two minutes I can tell what kind of guest they are – if they will want me to interact and chat or if they will want me to be invisible, more discreet." Whenever possible, Szep sleeps when her guests sleep.
She learns if they are left or right-handed. She knows their preferred water or chocolate brands, and even how they like their bed to be turned down. The job offers a window into the intimate lives of those many only read about or see on TV.
That she's a woman working as a butler, once a male-dominated role, actually makes it easier, she says. "Many people request me, or to have a female, because they feel more comfortable." About half of the butlers are women, Szep says.
Other than on a private jet, this is quite possibly the most decadent way to fly – a one-way flight costs about $10,000 (Dh36,725) to $20,000. And yet not everyone wants caviar for dinner. Despite having access to a private chef, one of Szep's guests asked for McDonald's. This was ordered via a concierge service – through which one can request most things, even a personalised dressing gown – long before the guest had arrived at the airport in their chauffeur-driven limousine and been whisked through a VIP entrance into Abu Dhabi's "secret lounge", where they could board first or last.
“Not everyone wants fine-dining all the time,” Szep says. “Another guest wanted just a packet of chips and a can of Coca-Cola for the whole flight. Others want the popcorn from economy class, because they love the smell.”