Menus in first and business class cabins, especially on international flights, have come a long way. But have you ever thought about the subtleties of the service side of that meal?
I attended a United Airlines flight attendant training for new hires last week and sat in on one day of the class’s five-week, six-days-a-week training at the Inflight Training Center in Houston, Texas (courtesy of the airline). On this day, the group of 25 men and women trainees practiced international service—how to do everything from presenting an amenity kit to handling a passenger who wants two bowls of ice cream to gracefully discarding trash.
My big takeaway: It’s much, much more difficult than it looks, especially when it comes to serving those five- and six-course meals. Here are seven surprising things I learned about how these meals are served.
Your salt shaker has its place. Your flight attendant has been trained to set your tray very, very precisely, with each item in a specific location. One particular and humble landmark, though, has particular importance. The teeny tiny salt shaker is always placed just to the left of the water glass and to the right of the pepper, a universal setup to guide visually impaired passengers.
Serving the window seat requires yoga-like flexibility. A flight attendant must never turn his or her back to the passenger when serving. This can require particular dexterity, though. For example, to serve window seats on the right side of the plane (facing the cockpit), those who are right-handed must use the left hand, which can be tenuous with a long reach, a full plate, and bumpy air. The opposite is true on the other side of the plane. They make it look easy; it’s not.
Plates must be finger-walked. For cleanliness, the flight attendant must pick a plate up without any fingers touching the rim or top of the plate. This requires slipping fingers carefully underneath the plate, walking them towards the plate’s center to the palm, and only then lifting. Tougher than you would think.
Tongs are single-minded. On a cheese cart, there are two sets of tongs, one for the grapes and one for the biscuits (aka crackers) and bread basket. Never shall they mingle. As you may know, cheese is served from the cart with two knives, not tongs. Just try that one at home!
Hot towels are home-made. Your premium cabin meal service begins with a hot towel. I always imagined these were prepared by some sort of magic process. No. Here’s the recipe: Place 12 hot towels on a tray. Then pour two cups of hot water over them. Serve. This is the one aspect of meal service that, behind the curtain, is more straightforward than it looks.
Plates and bowls are removed under a very strict set of guidelines. For example, bowls of warm nuts may be removed two passengers at a time but following the main course, only one passenger’s plates and utensils may be removed at a time.
Crews eat well, but for a reason. Choice of main course is essential but it’s problematic when everyone wants the salmon. United flight attendants are instructed to ask, “What would be your first choice of a main course? And what would be your second?” instead of, “Which main course would you like?” That way you’ve been subtly cued that it’s possible they may not have your first choice. However, to hedge the supply issue, flight crews eat premium meals and, of course, only after the passengers–theirs are backup meals when a particular dish is especially popular. Or so they say.
Next time you’re up front on a flight, take a moment to observe the skillful dance of the flight attendants. I know I’ll never look at a cheese cart the same way again.
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