China Southern Airlines

On a flight from a different era

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am


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In 1980, Wang Qiong was among the first generation of flight attendants in China after civil aviation in the country was separated from the air force. Today, having retired from the high-flying job last year, Wang, 51, oversees more than 500 attendants from China Southern Airlines' Shenzhen base. She talks about her 31 years spent in the cabin.

Why did you choose to become one of the mainland's first flight attendants in the 1980s?

My parents, who both worked as professors, desperately wanted me to receive a tertiary education and become a lecturer. But I failed the national college entrance exam twice between 1978 and 1979 as there were a huge number of university applicants after the exam was suspended for 10 years due to the Cultural Revolution.

I became one of the mainland's first flight attendants during an airline recruiting effort in Wuhan in Hubei province in 1980. Before that, all cabin service was required to be provided by soldiers from the air force.

The job paid very well, and the monthly salary then was 32 yuan after probation. After the flight, we were also offered free nutritious meals, which cost about seven yuan each. But I received a 28-yuan monthly reimbursement if I chose to eat at home. Earning 60 yuan a month made me feel like a rich woman - it was equal to the total monthly income of my parents.

After working as an attendant for the Wuhan bureau of the Civil Aviation Administration for more than a decade, I transferred in 1991 to the Shenzhen base of China Southern Airlines, where I was until I retired last year. China's aviation regulations set the age limit for flight attendants at 50. Now I'm in charge of the cabin-services department at the airline's Shenzhen base.

What were the criteria for being a flight attendant at that time? Did you face harsh competition?

Rather than directly recruit flight attendants, airlines at that time notified communities, and sub-district officers screened applicants according to their appearance and physical condition before submitting a list of candidates to the employers.

There was harsh competition, and only 10 out of several thousand applicants got the job. I felt dizzy and lay in bed for three days after the physical to determine our ability to withstand dizziness. I thought I had failed.

Although the job of flight attendant was still a mysterious occupation at that time, and not many mainland people knew about it, my neighbours all thought it was a golden rice bowl after we explained it to them.

What was the life of a flight attendant like three decades ago?

We had a much more arduous job than today's flight attendants, without any supporting staff such as cleaners. We needed to prepare for the journey one day ahead of time, from cleaning the cabin to loading meals. We had to climb up crude and dangerous iron ladders while carrying heavy supplies, as only passengers could use the comfortable stairs.

It was a tough job, especially in summer. Without air conditioners or electric fans, we felt like we were roasting inside the cabin because Wuhan is considered one of China's 'Three Stoves' during the summer (the others are Chongqing and Nanjing ).

The flight aboard Russian-made aircraft was also arduous. We flew at a low altitude without air conditioners- we had to open small windows- and passengers were allowed to smoke. The cabin was freezing in the winter, and everyone was shivering all over, even while wearing wool sweaters.

With crude radar systems and because we were flying at low altitude, aircraft often jolted terribly, and captains could never warn passengers prior to turbulence as they can today.

The journey was also much longer than today, as Russian-made aircraft had small fuel tanks and needed a stopover to refill. For example, a two-hour journey today from Wuhan to Beijing would take four hours in the 1980s. Luckily, we needed to service just three or four flights a month, as there were only two aircraft.

What kind of people could afford air travel three decades ago?

Only senior party cadres could travel by air at that time. There were an average of 30 to 36 passengers on each flight, and all of them were on business trips.

I still remember the first flight that departed from Shenzhen's airport in November 1991. It was 8.30am and the aircraft with 48 passengers was heading to Beijing.

A lady on board told me that she was so happy with the new airport - before that she could only take flights from Guangzhou. She said: 'I bought the ticket yesterday and boarded the aircraft today - so convenient.'

Is being a flight attendant still a top choice for today's young people?

Yes, because airlines generally have high standards on flight attendants' appearance and character in order to deliver good cabin service. With a beautiful uniform, delicate make-up and a decent salary, the public regards it as a good job.

But there are also difficulties beyond people's imagination, such as long working hours and limited time to spend with your family. Flight attendants today have a much larger workload than before, as airlines have increased the ratio of passengers to attendants to cut costs. Currently, our Shenzhen base has 500 flight attendants and more than 20 aircraft.

China sets a retirement age of 50 for flight attendants. Do you think it should be extended?

No, I believe flight attendants need time to enjoy life and spend it with their families, although senior attendants generally deliver more courteous service than young ones. Being a flight attendant in China is totally different from working for foreign airlines. They need to attend political training and go through many occupational tests that aren't required by foreign airlines.

I think it was enough for me that I worked in the cabin for 31 years.