The cabin crew that do more than just serve drinks
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Johannesburg - As Lezanne Kgori made her way through the cabin of the aircraft to do a regular check up on her passengers on a flight earlier this year she stopped at a male passenger who looked deathly ill.
Kgori was concerned the symptoms pointed to the deadly Ebola virus. This would be a medical emergency unlike anything Kgori had dealt in her 12 years as a flight attendant for South African Airways (SAA) .
As the head of the cabin crew on that flight Kgori had to take leadership and deal with the situation. “I remained calm and make sure my team remained calm as they had had also never experienced such a medical emergency. I had to pay attention to the passengers so the situation would not get out of control,” she added.
Fortunately it turned out to be a Ebola scare, nothing more, but Kgori and her team had managed to identify the problem, keep the passenger calm and comfortable and not create risks of spreading infection or undue panic among the rest of the passengers.
Being able to manage medical risks is essential for cabin crew members in all major airlines. For South Africa’s national airline it meant life or death when last year they managed to save the lives of five passengers who went into cardiac arrest during flights. On average SAA experiences one death on board their planes each year.
Recently, a passenger was brought back to life after going into cardiac arrest during an SAA flight to Frankfurt. With the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED), which has been part of on-board medical equipment on every SAA plane since 2009, the man was brought back to life, and stabilised by cabin crew by the time they landed at Frankfurt airport.
While all aircrafts have to be equipped with a first aid kit, a medical kit, and a universal precaution kit as a minimum requirement by the Civil Aviation Authority, SAA aircraft now have opted to include a state of art automated external defibrillator on board all flights. This is in addition to extra medical kits to deal with the almost any medical emergency.
The national carrier trains its cabin crew to deal with everything from minor headaches to strokes and heart attacks.
Cabin crew must also undego intensive first aid training in training to become certified flight attendants. In fact, the first task that an SAA cabin crew trainee has to undergo is first aid and safety training.
SAA’s first aid training is headed by sister Linda Horn, who has been with the airline for 25 years.
SAA’s first aid training centre, which is located at SAA Airways Park in Kempton Park, is registered with the Resuscitation Council of Southern Africa Training Centre and follows their guidelines and protocols.
Horn said: “One has to understand that the cabin crew do far more than just serve food and drinks to passengers. They are actually lifesavers on board. They make sure you are safe and comfortable at all times.”
The first aid training that all cabin crew members undergo is regulated by South Africa’s civil aviation authority.
“All cabin crew must be trained in first aid, over and above all other safety aspects,” said Horn.
“When we recruit them first, this is the first training they have. They cannot fly if they do not have first aid or safety training.”
Aside from learning how to deal with medical emergencies such as heart attacks, strokes, and deep vein thrombosis, cabin crew members are also taught how to deliver babies.
In SAA’s history, two passengers gave birth while on board.
“We had a birth on board one of our flights to New York in 2013, that was our second birth in the history of SAA,” said Horn.
“As an airline we would have not allowed the woman to fly if we had known she was at an advanced stage, however it was a case of her concealing her pregnancy. Safe to say the cabin crew did a perfect job of delivering the baby.”
Horn added: “Sometimes really complicated medical emergencies arise which require help. So if there is a doctor on board, they will get his or her help.”
If there aren’t any doctors on board and the cabin crew need assistance, they can make use of SAA’s chief medical officer, who is on call 24 hours day, 365 days a year.
“Via a satellite communication call, the cabin crew can call our chief medical officer on ground to assist them with whatever advice they require.”
Sonja Muller, who is a flight attendant with SAA for the last six years, said cabin crew members monitor passengers from the time they step on the plane till they land.
“As customers board we start assessing them, and if someone looks a bit ill or looks nervous about flying we pay special attention to them throughout the flight.”
“We also check the passenger list to see if any doctors are on board if we require any help from them.”
Khensani Nyembe, who is also a cabin crew member for SAA for the past four years, said: “We don’t get signed off unless we have covered all our bases and know everything.”
They are also taught how to deal with drunk and disorderly passengers.
“We have a very tactful way of dealing with drunk people,” said Muller.
“We monitor how much alcohol we give our passengers, and if they have had too much we politely ask them if they would like a cup of coffee or water.”
“If they are disruptive we make them aware that it is affecting other passengers, and if they continue to act in a disruptive manner we alert the captain, who then makes the decision on what steps to take and whether to hand the person over to authorities once we land.”
The cabin crew, including the pilots, undergo refresher courses on managing disruptive passengers and medical emergencies.
“Each year for five days the cabin crew attend safety and first aid refresher courses to sharpen their skills,” said Horn.
”Pilots also do simulations every six months , and aircrafts are thoroughly checked regularly and must be certified air worthy before taking off.”
Having saved a number of lives on board, Horn said she was “extremely proud” of all the cabin crew members of SAA.
“I am extremely impressed by what they have achieved so far,” said Horn.
“We are aligned with the Resuscitation Council of Southern Africa school, and when the council has their yearly meeting with nurses, doctors and paramedics they use SAA crew members as examples of automated external defibrillator achievements. SAA has saved the most lives in the country using automated external defibrilators .”