December 12, 2019
"He's so Virgin. Always smiling, always sparkling and yet can always be relied upon to get things done. We love him." Carly, our Gatwick duty manager, is talking about Scott Coley, one of our Flight Service Managers. He's clearly a big favourite at Gatwick, so we went to find out why he's so popular, and why the role of FSM is one of the most varied and valued jobs in the airline world.
We shadowed Scott on the VS29 to Barbados, which leaves Gatwick at 9.20 AM. Crew check-in is two hours before departure, so this is an early start for Scott, who lives a 20-minute drive from the airport. His crew all arrive wrapped up in coats and scarves against the freezing temperature outside. Their day was going to get warmer. Much warmer.
Scott wanted to fly for as long as he can remember and before joining Virgin Atlantic he spent 6 years flying short-haul with a low-cost carrier. During that time he always had one eye on flying for us, and in 2006 he realised his ambition and joined our cabin crew team. Four years ago, he landed his dream job when he was promoted to FSM.
What is a Flight Service Manager?
The FSM is the most senior cabin crew member on any given flight. A slight difference in uniform makes them easy to spot onboard – men wear grey ties instead of red, and our female FSMs wear burgundy blouses instead of white. It’s a demanding but rewarding job and takes an exceptional kind of person. It’s a job that requires a great deal of empathy and energy and to be able to bring a smile to the huge diversity of people onboard. They need to retain a vast amount of information, pass stringent annual checks, be a superb team manager and deal with anything from a misbehaving TV screen to a full-blown crisis. On top of that they need to deliver the best customer service, and do it all while operating across several time zones, several miles up in the air and a long way from land.
Like most of our cabin crew, Scott is London based, which means he can operate out of Gatwick or Heathrow. Crew members can also request one particular flight a month, as well as swap flights with other crew. Scott is also part of our Gatwick ‘super preference’ team; a scheme to give those who prefer flying to the Gatwick leisure destinations priority on these routes. Not only do our crew get to fly more often to the places they love, they also get to know the destinations in depth, as well as our customers’ preferences, and all the little touches and details unique to each route. The result has been a significant improvement in our customer satisfaction scores.
The pre-flight briefing
After arriving at our crew check-in area The Gatehouse, Scott spends time with his second-in-command, cabin supervisor, Stacey Beaumont. Over the next half hour they need to bring together a team who may have never met each other before and help them gel. After a quick discussion about the flight, the rest of the crew are invited in. Scott runs through a carefully scripted briefing that covers safety and security as well as any notices related to the aircraft (on this particular flight one of the overhead lockers is out of action). He also briefs the crew on any route-specific information they need to know. Barbados recently stopped issuing landing cards but regular customers are still asking for them. Scott reassures the crew that this is correct. There’s also a last-minute change to the Economy meal which hadn’t made it onto the printed menu. It’s all in the detail.
Next, the pilots pop in to introduce themselves and talk about piloty things like flight times and weather. On this particularly frosty morning, the aircraft needs de-icing. Because of this, they suggest the crew do a manual safety briefing (perhaps another blog post needed to explain that one!) There’s some discussion about plans for their night in Barbados, then the briefing turns to our customers and the service they’ll receive. Scott shares some recent customer feedback on the Barbados route, followed by a pep talk worthy of a TED appearance. The team leave feeling energised, inspired and ready to really wow our customers.
Before the customers board
After a quick stroll to the boarding gate and onto the aircraft, Scott’s busiest half-hour begins. During this brief but intense period, he works with the crew to complete safety and security checks, make sure all the catering and stores are on board, that the onboard water tanks are full, the toilet tanks are empty and the aircraft has been properly cleaned.
Engineers brief Scott on any issues with the cabin. Through his crew iPad, he’ll already know about any special meals or customers who’ve requested assistance in advance. The ground crew let him know about any other issues like seating problems that sometimes come to light during check-in. The turnaround coordinator is always around, keeping a close eye on the clock and ready to chase anything that’s not ready or right.
It’s a massive team effort with Scott at its centre. Getting the flight away on time is a big focus for everyone because we know how important it is to our customers. Gatwick operates a system called green light boarding which means that unless Scott says otherwise the gate team will automatically start sending customers down to the aircraft 55 minutes before departure. Scott’s there to greet the customers but also available to answer questions for the ground team. Five minutes before the scheduled departure time the doors are closed and the passenger numbers cross-checked with the pilots. During the taxi out, Scott needs to be happy that the aircraft is secured for departure, that all customers and crew are sitting down, the safety briefing is done, all seats and tray tables are upright with aisles clear. Then he confirms with the captain that the cabin is ready for departure before strapping himself into his crew seat for take-off. It’s one of the few quiet moments in his day. I’m already exhausted watching it all, and we haven’t even taken off yet.
When normal becomes not normal
“On a normal flight, my job is the same as any cabin crew; to deliver great service,” says Scott. “But when a problem arises, that’s when I have to step up to the mark.” A critical aspect of the FSM role is to be able to deal with just about anything life can throw at you, with nowhere to run and no police, ambulance or fire brigade to call. Years of experience combined with excellent training give Scott the confidence to do just that. It can be anything from a broken TV right up to a full-scale aircraft emergency or a life-threatening medical crisis. “You need to realise that you’re never on your own when things go wrong,” he says. “As the FSM I need to take responsibility and deal with the situation, and a lot of it is about being able to manage time and delegate. But I know I can rely on the help of the highly trained team I have with me.” In his time as FSM Scott has dealt with a death onboard, the restraint of an aggressive customer and many medical emergencies. He also has all the latest equipment to hand including our MedLink system, which can patch the aircraft through to a medical specialist who can remotely view the vital signs of ill customers. No wonder they’re so thorough when checking all the equipment before a flight.
A guiding light
Scott describes his management style as thorough, with high standards, and he likes to lead by example. “It’s all about my team delivering for our customers and part of that is looking after the crew. I make sure they know I’m here to help and support. I make sure they take breaks and, of course, have a bit of fun along the way. That’s when it all comes together.” Another side of the FSM role, and one Scott particularly enjoys, is coaching our cabin crew and mentoring them through our promotion process. “The best thing is when someone tells me I’ve helped them,” he says. “If someone asks me to mentor them and I think they’re going to learn from the experience I’ll go above and beyond to help.”
Everything runs smoothly onboard the flight, and the service is flawless. Once the Eric Lanlard Mile High Tea is finished, there’s a final flurry of activity as the aircraft starts its descent. This is when all the equipment unpacked over the eight-hour flight has to be put away again. The cabin is secured and the cabin crew are seated for landing just as the coast of Barbados appears out the window. There’s a spectacular view from the left-hand side of the aircraft as it runs down the south coast of the island and turns in for the runway.
After saying goodbye to everyone, it’s time for Scott and his team to step into the glorious 30-degree sunshine – more than welcome after the frost at Gatwick just eight hours previously. Once at the hotel, it’s time to kick off the work shoes and enjoy some Caribbean hospitality, even though the FSM’s job doesn’t stop at the aircraft door. They’re also responsible for the welfare of the crew down route. They need to be on hand to deal with any problems that may arise such as late check out in the case of a delayed flight, or if anyone is taken sick.
Twenty four hours after arriving, it’s time for Scott and his team to put on their uniforms and head back to the airport to do it all over again. This time the crew is met by our Barbados team who are already well progressed on the return flight check-in. It’s getting dark by the time the Airbus takes off and heads out over the Atlantic. Once back in London the last job of the FSM is to drop off the charity collection, and then head home for a well-deserved couple of days off.
Flying with Scott were pilots captain Chris Waterhouse and Senior First Officer Ian Daniels. In the cabin with Scott and Stacey were Leanne Muirehead, Catt Alice, Marguerite Kenneally, Erin Heffernan, Craig Guest, Karen McCue, Kim Ventre and Jemima Worrall.