Teaming up: from a Cabin Crew Perspective – By Ahmed Haouaria

17 Avr 2022

As per International Civil Aviation Organization ICAO, the majority of aircraft accidents are related to human factors and an accident or incident is linked together by a chain of different errors. Most of these accidents could have been avoided by the crew if they would have been able to communicate better with each other during flights. Some common errors that occur among the crew are assertiveness, lack of leadership, and distractions. Crew training in related subjects will strengthen the crews' performance level. Training Programs like Crew Resource Management (CRM) have been designed to support the crew's work as a team and reduce the human factor in accidents. CRM includes training in leadership/followership, assertiveness, management, communication, teamwork, decision making, and task delegation. Through such training programs, crews learn to work together as a team and when they are working together it is less likely there'll be an accident. Teamwork is a critical skill that all Cabin Crew need to have. Without it, they cannot work efficiently onboard the aircraft on a day-to-day basis or provide the best safety performance. In a worst-case scenario, if any emergencies occur onboard and there is no teamwork then the outcome is inevitable, no matter how well trained or a professional crew members are.


Civil aviation: a field of activity in which effective teamwork is essential

The team is a model of collective work that is a benchmark in many professional areas. We naturally think of the sports team, the medical team, the educational team, or the research team... Commercial civil aviation is another field of activity in which the team also remains quite alive. It is also marked by a singularity in that the crew members change after each flight completion, and then rebuild themselves with other members at each new departure. The larger the size of the airline, the more multiple the combinations, and the lower the probability of flying twice with the same colleague. With each new start, we discover for the first time new faces, new personalities, new ways of doing tasks that nevertheless remain the same, colleagues, with whom we will have to work, perform, cooperate, adjust... Yet each time, the newly assembled team works almost instantly.

What makes a group of individuals more than a group?

No more than the group or the work collective, the team cannot be decreed. Like the latter, it only has collective consistency on the condition that the units that compose it are not reduced to a simple assembly but form a whole. The American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, characterizing primary groups, argued that ‘’ Perhaps the simplest way of describing this wholeness is by saying that it is a "we"; it involves the sort of sympathy and mutual identification for which "we" is the natural expression. One lives in the feeling of the whole and finds the chief aims of his will in that feeling’’.

 Work on groups identifies three conditions for moving from a series of individuals to a group:

  • the active pursuit of the same goal,
  • interdependent affective relationships,
  • a feeling of solidarity.

These conditions are better realized when the group is small.

Mucchielli lists seven other requirements for teamwork:

  • easy two-way interpersonal communication;
  • the possibility of expressing disagreements and tensions;
  • mutual aid;
  • replacement of a defaulting member;
  • joint development of objectives;
  • a division of labor according to the task;
  • a priori knowledge of the reactions, initiatives, aptitudes of all the members by each one.

Cooperation and trust: at the heart of the analysis of the psychodynamics of work

Mucchielli also evokes cohesion and cooperation, the “first cement” of which is trust in partners. He specifies that this is correlated to the knowledge of the teammates as well as to past experiences in common, insofar as these two factors favor anticipations, adjustments, and regulations between the members of the team during the activity. Cooperation and trust are also at the heart of the analysis of the psychodynamics of work. “There is no cooperation, indeed, without trust between the team members. It is in this dynamic that the work rules are built. “There begins to be a team when work rules have been constructed by the collective. A team only exists when these rules have been stabilized. Otherwise, it is only a group or a mass”.

What is a team?

A team is first of all a group. The group is even at the “foundation of a science of teams”. But what is its particularity, and what group is it?

Mucchielli defines the team as a “small cooperative group, motivated for a common task, united, characterized by unity, cohesion, and team spirit”

The team is both family and commando without being able to be reduced to one or the other form. At one extreme, is the family in which divergences and differences are accepted in the name of shared identity; at the other extreme, is the commando, a troop that obeys like a single man to succeed in its mission. Thus individual strategies, rivalry, and competition between members of the same team can coexist and do not inevitably harm the result of the match, they can even contribute to the good performance of all. Unity and cohesion are not naturally and automatically acquired, adjustments are necessary through the intervention of the coach and between the players themselves.

In this perspective, the team is to be considered as a group of individuals where each has his place, his role, and his importance in the success of the whole. That everyone contributes to a common goal does not exclude the coexistence of individual strategies that contribute to the achievement of the shared objective. Teaming is mobilizing a group to achieve an explicit common goal, the achievement of which presupposes the interdependence of individual activities that need to be adjusted between them. We will start from this definition to think about what, in the activity of the cabin crew, gives life to the team.

The crew is more than a team

In commercial civil aviation, the crew is made up of pilots, Captain and First Officer/Copilot and Cabin Crew, pursers, hostesses, and stewards. Although forming two inseparable components of the crew, pilots and co-pilots on the one hand, cabin crew on the other hand constitute two categories of aircrew separated in the course of a flight but also within the airlines themselves: they do not always come under the same department, their activities are managed by specific regulatory frameworks and work agreements... Although they share the same main goal, that the flight arrives safely, Cockpit Crew and Cabin Crew nevertheless have distinct missions: the aircraft technical components for the former, the aircraft-passenger aspect for the latter.

At the heart of the cabin crew duties and responsibilities, passenger's safety and security

 What makes and cements a team, in the first place, is having a common objective, the achievement of which guides everyone's activity. In the case of cabin crew, the crew members do everything to succeed. The efforts are entirely oriented towards the goal to be achieved. In addition to passenger satisfaction, a successful flight is a flight without accident/incident. What is present in the minds of the flight crew and cabin crew members at each take-off is flight safety because if the very large majority of flights are performed without problem, if there has been an incident or accident, everything changes. Life freezes.

From this perspective, cabin crew are more particularly responsible for the well-being and safety of passengers, two dimensions that are linked and condition flight safety.

Remember that historically, the first air hostesses were nurses whose main mission was to reassure passengers on board. It’s not just about passenger comfort; beyond that, it is the very safety of the flight that is at stake because fear of the plane can lead to aggressive behavior or panic movements likely to compromise the smooth running of the flight. Also, cabin crew fears violent or irrational behavior on the part of passengers because it can threaten the unstable balance they strive to maintain throughout the air journey. When I was still flying I had always asked myself this question: if tomorrow onboard my full plane, 200 people rebelled with one voice against 4 cabin crew, who could contain them? And for more than 19 years, I have faced this eventuality by admiring the docility, the pacifism of these passengers whom with my colleagues we managed each specific situation.

To ensure its safety and security mission, the Cabin Crew Member is duly trained to deal with a simple injury as well as the most complex situations: heart attack, fire, decompression,  forced landing, sea landing, emergency evacuation, childbirth. Anywhere in the world, access to the job is conditional upon obtaining a rescue and safety certificate. Issued by the Civil Aviation Authority of each country.

This title formalizes the role of Cabin Crew Members in terms of cabin safety and security, a role they place at the foundation of their professionalism and their job, refusing to be reduced to mere "cart pushers".

A job with a focus on Standard Operating Procedures SOP's

The prescribed task is based on very specific guidelines and instructions gathered in what is called airline “documentation”. The procedures apply to all crew members. Flight crew and flight attendants also have checklists specific to their tasks. These are checklists of actions to be carried out at key moments in the flight: preflight checks, take-off, landing…

Observing a cabin crew during a flight reveals how their activity is rigorously sequenced (reception of passengers, preparations and checks for take-off, safety instructions, provision of logs and/or headsets, distribution of snacks, onboard sales service, preparation for landing, checks), and the precise allocation of tasks and space between members. Watching their gestures, and their movements, especially on long hauls where they often work in pairs, one can have the feeling at times of witnessing a choreography with perfectly synchronized movements; the gestures seem to be made mechanically.

The procedures, the sequencing of the activity, and the distribution of roles and spaces function as a shared, integrated common framework, creating automatisms that do not need to be repeated. This embodied knowledge of the procedure, of the sequencing of the activity, the gestures, the actions, of the space, is one of the conditions of the immediacy with which they can team up with colleagues they have met for the first time a few minutes before boarding. A repetition of gestures that also supports “teaming up” in other professional spheres.

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