In 1985, a B737 suffered an uncontained failure of the left engine which tore a fuel line and ignited setting off a massive fire. Although the take-off was successfully aborted, 55 passengers and crew members could not escape the aircraft before being overcome by smoke and fumes. One contributing factor to the high number of fatalities was the confusion in the evacuation led by the cabin crew. Nevertheless, there are also countless other cases where the cabin crew made a more positive difference and saved many lives. The situation is however, that while flight academies and airlines around the world train flight attendant candidates to conduct themselves professionally in the cabin, they are seldom offered courses in understanding the role of personality and decision making, judgment, independence, self-esteem and other traits and skills, similar to Crew Resource Management training undertaken by the pilots. However, given their crucial role in the safe operation of a flight, a careful selection of flight attendants is of the same vital importance as the selection of flight deck crew. Expressed in another way, we should train flight attendants for skills and select them for attitude
Each airline has its own specific model when selecting flight attendants. Typical criteria include suitable age, height, weight, sight, hearing and other physical factors related to circumstances and limitations in the cabin environment. Educational background is typically focused on communication and language skills. Professional experience from the service sector or nursing are often considered as an advantage. Together, these qualities form the basis of the capacities and skills needed as a flight attendant. However, the true test of proficiency is undertaken when these skills are assessed under actual or simulated emergency conditions. To identify who is therefore best suited in a selection process is complicated. Besides the skills and capacities, there is also a personality dimension to include in the assessment. The task is therefore to determine to what extent the person’s personality helps or hinders in utilising their skills under pressure. Between our skills and our effective competence are a personality filter which is either able to reduce the output of our skills or able to enhance them.
A reliable selection process should strive to assess the effective competence of the applicants and not only their capacities and skills. This does not automatically imply that airlines should look for a certain personality, but rather dynamically evaluate the influence each candidate’s personality traits have on their capacities and skills. If presented with a well-educated applicant with brilliant language skills and relevant experience, we should also take into consideration his/her personality and decide how this combination will affect the job in the cabin.
There is no standard procedure in use when selecting flight attendants. However there are a variety of assessment methods which can be included and combined in a selection design. Typical methods are: Ability tests, Personality tests, Interviews, and Referral to an Assessment centre.
Ability tests. Ability tests include for example language, verbal, analytical, and numerical tests. Regarding flight attendants, stress tests, tests of ability to handle simultaneous workload and panic resistance could exemplify the special tests. Since many airlines place greater emphasis on physical attraction and a pleasing appearance, they tend to depreciate the value of abilities in their selection of flight attendants. It is useful to carefully integrate the test results into the total assessment.
Personality tests. Most published research on personality tests and aviation, focuses on pilots and very few studies on flight attendants. Some personality tests do not have the same reliability and validity as ability tests and there is from a general point of view not as much research data that have verified the benefit of personality tests in relation to aviation. One reason is probably that most traditional personality tests are designed to detect psychopathology. Regardless of whether personality tests are used in the selection process of flight attendants, the results have to be cross-validated with other sorts of data before final conclusions are drawn.
Interviews. One of the most frequent assessment methods is the interview. The ways they are conducted vary widely from the superficial to clinical in-depth interviews. The objections raised against interviews have always centred around the subjectivity. Nevertheless, the advantage of interviews is the direct relationship between the interviewer and the candidate. All of us may accept that a flight simulator is a superior method for checking * most of a pilot’s aviator abilities. In the same way we should strive for a “flight attendant simulator” and the interview meets many of the qualifications for such a device.
Often we would like to know if the applicant meets, for example, the criteria for independence. In an interview we can assess whether the candidate is able to take an independent position/stand in relation to the interviewer. In these cases we not only talk about how the applicant behaves but we can also observe any critical conduct. In the same way we can directly observe if the candidate is able to co-operate in the interview and so on. Some airlines use administrative staff or managers and even aviation psychologists to accomplish the selection. It is highly recommended to use the complementary skills of an interviewer who is well-known to the flight attendant’s working conditions and another interviewer who is skilled in assessing people. Using in-house interviewers presupposes extensive interview and assessment training to avoid the most basic mistakes.
Referral to assessment centre. If certain core abilities are tested and some well-established personality tests are used and integrated together with interview data, the probability of reaching a good decision about the applicants’ potentials is high. With different interviewers involved – even well-trained interviewers – we need a calibration of the candidates. Taking into consideration the fact that flight attendants work in teams, a final step is relevant to add to the selection procedure. An assessment centre meets both these criteria. In an assessment centre, several candidates are exposed to different work-similar tasks which they have to accomplish in different team-settings while a couple of observers are rating and recording their performances. In such a setting, the candidates are exposed to several assessors and a natural calibration takes place. The candidates also expose themselves to more work-similar circumstances and in teams with the same dynamics as on board. In an assessment centre, the author has conducted for airlines, it is striking that in the interviews the candidates give away voluntary data, while in the centre they also expose involuntarily data.
In a well-designed assessment centre with work-similar team tasks, team-work ability, tolerance, coordinated independence, social competence, social confidence, power of initiative, dominance, natural authority, working speed, stress tolerance, situational awareness etc. are displayed. If the assessment centre has a straightforward design without any mystical elements that can only be unravelled by personal specialists, these traits should be comparatively uncomplicated to observe and to relate to the work in the cabin.
Participant who exposes a dominant manner in several exercises in the assessment centre has probably the same tendency in the cabin and a person who repeatedly takes natural initiatives in a team exercise is likely to behave in the same way among colleagues on board.
Our recommendations for Cabin crew selection is published by the distinguished publisher Ashgate in a book with the title: Aviation Mental Health: Psychological Implications for Air Transportation.