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Attending to really high fliers
Attending to really high fliers

Over the past 20 years, Ida Mae Spencer has had jobs that ranged from selling natural products to working on chartered yachts to being involved in the real estate business. She has now found her calling.

"I´ve done many things in my life, but this tops the list," said Spencer, who last year became a corporate flight attendant. "It´s rewarding, fun, lucrative and adventurous."

And hard work not for the faint of heart, she said. Corporate flight attendants´ jobs are very different from their airline counterparts´. The corporate types might be working on multimillion-dollar jets for the world´s wealthiest, but they must do everything for them, from clean to cook to provide first aid - all with the impeccable white-glove service the super-rich require.

Spencer got into the business by accident after meeting Mary Lou Gallagher, a neighbor who was a corporate flight attendant and now runs Beyond and Above, a school to train others in the growing field.

Gallagher said increased security after the Sept. 11 attacks has made commercial air travel impractical for the very wealthy, so they´ve invested in their own aircraft to move about the world on their own schedule.

"For people at this level of income, time is money," said Gallagher, who spent 16 years working for airlines before going corporate. "They use their plane as an office. They don´t have to go through security or waste their time waiting for delays."

According to Avianation.com, an aviation industry Web site, the fastest growing sector of aviation is with corporate or executive jets, where the number of flight attendant jobs is increasing.

The National Business Aviation Association says there is growth in corporate travel and for flight attendants, but much is offset by airline flight attendants´ being laid off and looking for work. The association has seen a marked increase in applications for its scholarships for training.

Gallagher, who started with the airlines in the 1960s, said corporate contract work is better for flight attendants, too.

"We´re not the polite society we used to be," said Gallagher, who started her school six years ago. "People used to get dressed up to fly. Now it´s like a bad bus ride."

Gallagher runs the school from her home in Gulfport but teaches it in facilities in Fort Lauderdale. For $ 3,200, her attendees get a four-day course in everything from CPR to etiquette and gourmet catering. Her graduates frequently get high-paying contract jobs right after graduation, she said, earning $ 300 to $ 500 a day, plus expenses, including during layovers.

"You´re working with billionaires, the ultrawealthy, so it´s lucrative, but you have to be discreet," said Denise Folsom, who finished Above and Beyond in June and has been flying consistently since, including trips to Australia, Dubai, Egypt and South Africa.

Corporate flight attendants often sign confidentiality agreements because they work in an atmosphere where people may be discussing sensitive business matters. They also can´t reveal for whom they work.

"We customize for what the client wants," said Jennifer Guthrie, who is with In-Flight Crew Connections, a booking agency for flight attendants, pilots, even mechanics. "This is a private environment, so they employ at will."

Folsom said she prepares gourmet meals on the aircraft, sans a gourmet kitchen. She hand-picks flowers and polishes silver, but on a recent trip she also had to revive the passengers after a sudden decompression made them all pass out.

"It can be difficult because you have all these responsibilities," she said. "You have to be perfect, invisible and organized, with no attitude."

Most clients treat the plane like an office, but a few treat it like a playground. Guthrie said there are a few complaints about sexual harassment, but for the most part the clients are too busy to be bothered with flirtations. In fact, many aren´t that interested in fancy food.

"The favorite item to stock on the airplane is American cheese and white bread," Guthrie said. "They´re used to having lobster and filet, so they ask for PB&J."

But attendants can´t expect simple requests, Gallagher said. Even if clients do just want a snack, the attendant who wants a return engagement must present it properly.

"You can´t just put a cookie on a plate and hand it to someone who owns a -million airplane," she said.

Folsom says you have to have a little Martha Stewart in you to embrace the job. Spencer said it´s demanding, but she doesn´t mind.

"It´s very formal, first class all the way," she said. "You have to enjoy doing it. You have to like detail."

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