Cathay Pacific

This is your nanny speaking ...

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 February, 2007, 12:00am

'IT'S LIKE A MIRACLE: when I go up to a crying baby or child, they just stop and smile - they must like me,' says Pansy Mau Pui-man.

Which is just as well, because Mau is a so-called sky nanny and her job is to do just that: avert a crisis on board when a screaming child threatens to disturb the peace of every passenger within earshot.

Mau is one of 174 sky nannies employed by Gulf Air - a sizeable proportion of its 1,917 cabin crew. Like her sky nanny colleagues she earned her title by doing a one-week stint at the Norland College in Bath, England, where nannies to the British royal family, among other top-tier clients, learn the ropes.

Back in Oman, she honed her skills caring for the specific inflight needs of children on board at a series of in-house workshops. The result, claims Gulf Air, is an army of sky nannies ready to ease the long-haul pains of parents.

They promise to lend a hand for the whole journey, assuming the roles of child helper, carer, entertainer and family confidant in the case of any difficulties.

'We're also cabin crew,' says Mau. 'But the needs of babies, children or their parents always come first.'

Health visitor and lactation consultant Yvonne Heavyside (whose company, The Family Zone, offers speciality mother and baby care) likes the sound of airborne help. 'I know a lot of women who travel alone and I think this will make life easier for them,' she says. 'Having a sky nanny around would allow them to eat dinner or go to the bathroom without worry.

'Toddlers get very bored. Hopefully a nanny could bring something to keep them occupied. Ideally, she'd know what toys and DVDs are best for which ages. Toddlers are the most restless, and also more clingy to their parents. Infants up to about 10 months will respond to strangers more readily.'

For the family on a Lunar New Year journey to see relatives, this idea may sound like a godsend. But how much pacification is really possible for in-flight infants and children - particularly where a long-haul journey is concerned?

The challenges are numerous for these specialist staff, whose concerns drift beyond the newborn to teenagers. 'Sometimes the kids' parents can be quite unco-operative,' says Mau. 'For instance, if a child is constantly pressing the call button for cabin crew, we ask mothers and fathers to help stop this happening, but some parents simply don't care.

'What can we do? We have to be patient and divert the child's attention - this is what we try to do too if crying goes on for a long period.'

That's all very well if you choose to travel with Gulf Air. But how do other airlines divide cabin attendants' general duties with childcare?

'There are designated areas of responsibility,' says Fiona Morgan, Cathay Pacific cabin crew communications manager. 'It's more senior crew who are in charge of entire sections, and they can enlist the help of other crew members if there are a lot of minors on a particular flight.

'Safety concerns mean we can't allow kids in galleys. But as well as games and children's entertainment, we carry specialist kids' medicine and nappies and crew avoid giving young children difficult-to-digest food or products that can easily cause allergy. Crew only handle infants if asked - say, if a parent wants a break or needs to eat.'

On Cathay, unaccompanied minors can have an assigned guardian to look after them - at no extra cost - if requested at least seven days ahead, and if there are six or more aboard one flight.

'They were known as flying mums when [Cathay introduced them in] the 1980s,' says Morgan. 'We changed the name to 'flying guardian' in December 2002 to better reflect the role.'

According to Morgan, the biggest challenge in looking after junior passengers is enforcing safety regulations, with children over two required to wear seat belts at certain times. Children often aren't happy about this and parents can be prone to ignoring regulations for the sake of some peace and quiet.

Dragonair spokeswoman Laura Crampton says the airline offers special arrangements for young, unaccompanied passengers and priority for families when boarding and during meal times.

With airlines saying they're prepared to handle young travellers, are innovations such as dedicated carers just a marketing tool to attract the family dollar?

Marketing manager Christine Cheong (the mother of one-year-old Liam) says she likes the idea of sky nannies, especially for parents travelling solo - although she says her experiences with cabin crew have been positive, anyway.

'Recently, one particular male cabin crew was immediately friendly to my baby,' Cheong says. 'He also found us seats next to a spare seat without us having to ask - otherwise the baby would have had to be on my lap. I thought this was incredibly sensitive on his part to notice.

'I think every parent's nightmare, though, is how to keep their child occupied all the time. Perhaps airlines could offer different gift packs for babies, toddlers and older children.'

A mother of three has a different view. 'Having travelled with numerous airlines, I have to say I'm pretty sceptical about it all. I've seen things getting worse, not better. Airline staff seem more stressed out and overworked these days, and so - not surprisingly - less able to help,' she says.

'I once travelled 12 hours with my then two-month-old without any offer of help. I would have gone without a drink had it not been for a couple who offered to hold my baby for five minutes.

'I've had stewards giving me the evil eye and even snap at the kids. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that when those big jumbos start flying, one of the airlines will take pity on us and add a kids' playroom on board. I doubt it though.

'In the meantime, I'll just do what I always do when I get on board. I tell myself this is going to be 12 hours of sleepless, uncomfortable hell, I'll be the most despised person on board, and I'll be lucky if I get time to eat a bread roll, let alone a meal and watch a movie. At least that way I'm usually pleasantly surprised that it wasn't quite as bad as I thought it would be.'