ON CLOUD 9On a rainy afternoon, lines of prim young women crowd the Gangnam office of ANC Stewardess Academy.
“It doesn’t matter where I live as long as I have my wings and can fly above the clouds,” says Kim Ji-young, 25, one of the young women standing in line, all of whom are smoothing their starched, black-and-white skirts or patting their hair, which is neatly pulled back in a bun.
Their faces appear intense. Some giggle not out of joy but because they are skittish before their interview for a Qatar Airways flight attendant’s job.
The Middle Eastern airlines’ interviewers have chosen a good place to find hordes of young Korean women eager to become flight attendants beaming radiant smiles.
ANC has been transforming young Korean women into flight attendants for 14 years, imparting them with the finer points of makeup application, proper posture and English interview skills. All of ANC’s tutors are former airline stewardesses; at one time, the academy even had students dress in full airline outfits and serve pretend customers in a room resembling an airplane cabin.
Many foreign airlines, including Cathy Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines, recruit Korean flight attendants through ANC. From 50 to 100 Korean women register at ANC each month for the 3-month long stewardess preparatory course.
“When a stewardess bows to a passenger, you will observe that she has her hands folded neatly,” says Park Jung-wan, ANC’s general manager. “That’s the kind of thing we teach our students here. Additionally, one needs to practice often to earn that smile since it’s not easy to show a perfect smile.”
Globetrotters might notice that flight attendants’ age and appearance differ according to airline.
Many airlines based in Asia feature attractive young flight attendants pouring wine and serving meal trays, whereas older, less alluring ― and in many cases, heavily perfumed ― stewardesses are more common on Western nations’ airlines.
“In developed countries, the airlines tend to hire stewardesses who are skilled at their work, which is serving customers, whereas countries that are a bit behind economically tend to desire young attractive women,” says Mr. Park.
“For example when Cathy Pacific recruits, they don’t care how tall the applicants are,” he notes. “It’s fine so long as the applicants can reach the overhead bin. And at Northwest [Airlines] they only look at what the applicants’ attitude about service is.”
According to Mr. Park, another reason why Asian airlines, including Korea’s, have younger flight attendants is because most of them leave after 3 to 5 years. Korean Air and Asiana Airlines won’t hire anyone over 23 years old. “Most of the Korean girls tend to apply for the stewardess job out of curiosity,” he says.
So what drives so many pretty young women to endure the threat of terrorism, not to mention irate passengers and a backbreaking schedule week, after week?
“In the past I would say at a job interview that I like meeting people and serving them, but frankly I just want to travel around the world,” says Ms. Kim. “And this is the best job in the service industry.”
Ms. Kim’s rival for a Qatar Airways slot, Yoon Hwa-kyoung, adds, “A stewardess is a successful job for a professional career woman.”
Fat paychecks also serve as a magnet. A rumor circulating at ANC not long ago had stewardesses at Emirates Airlines raking in upwards of 600 million won (about $500,000) during nine years in the air.
In reality, starting salaries are far lower, and depend to some extent on the number of flights a stewardess works and how much duty-free goods she sells, according to industry sources. One Korean Air official quoted 30 million won as a typical salary of a stewardess in the early stages of her career.
Ms. Kim, a native of Seoul, said she has dreamed of working in the clouds since high school, and enrolled at ANC last year.
“I even got a stewardess certificate from Canada when I went abroad a year for a language course,” says Ms. Kim. “I thought the certificate would help me land a job at an airline but I was wrong. The certificate is a job guarantee only when you have Canadian citizenship, and it’s worthless here in Seoul.”
Since completing the ANC course, she has applied at several foreign airlines including Emirates Airlines. She nervously awaits the company’s decision on her application.
“There were a few places where I didn’t even make the first cut and a few where I didn’t made it through the last interview,” says Ms. Kim. “But I’m going to apply at every opportunity because this is what I dream of.”
To turn her dream into reality, she has enrolled in booster courses at the institute and formed a study group with other former ANC students. Group members practice interviewing and foreign language skills, crucial factors when applying for foreign airlines.
When she’s not perfecting her smile or burying her head in a language book, Ms. Kim earns her living as a doumi, or “helper,” one of the tribe of Korean lassies in shimmering miniskirts who promote liquor, credit cards and other products on Seoul’s busy sidewalks.
“I have to work part-time because when applying to foreign airlines, recruiters check if you have previous job experience,” says Ms. Kim. “The recruiters see if you have leadership skills and if you get along with your colleagues.”
Ms. Kim chose to work part-time as a doumi girl to leave time to prepare for interviews.
“Some of the girls that I know quit their jobs right before a job interview so they can prepare more but I don’t want to do that,” says Ms. Kim.
To gain entry into the high-altitude career, the ladies must score well on the interview, surmounting it with grace and tact. But Ms. Kim abhors the face-to-face grilling, especially some of the awkward questions pitched.
“Some of the questions are hard to answer even in Korean,” says Ms. Kim, sighing, as those around her nod in agreement.
“The most common question asked is ‘Why do you want to become a stewardess,’” says Jung Su-min, 23, another applicant to Qatar Airways.
“One of the questions is to define your family,” says Ms. Jung. “Of course this question seems quite easy but you see most of the answers are so similar that you have to come up with something that’s distinctly yours and yet not sound ludicrous.”
An interviewer once asked Ms. Kim what she does before she goes to bed.
“God! I should have told them that I always reflect on the things that I have done,” cries Ms. Kim. “Instead I told them that I watch the sitcom “Friends” and surf the Internet before I turn in at 11: 30 p.m. I don’t think I had the right answer.”
Ms. Jung recalled one group interview where the ladies were asked to rank five patients ― one with a bleeding nose, a sick baby with high fever, an old lady and two others she cannot remember ― in order of priority of attention.
“So what happened?” ask the other girls. “Well the girl couldn’t answer that question,” says Ms. Jung, shrugging.
It seemed possible that these lithe ladies could count on one less competitor. But they showed no sign of relief since they had a long way to go before earning a wing.
The life of a stewardess not only can lose its glamour at 11,000 meters (36,000 feet) above the earth, it can be downright challenging once flight attendants are back on terra firma ― only in a foreign country. Like many of her colleagues aiming for a life, or at least a few years, of soaring on steel wings, Ms. Kim said, “I don’t care where I am stationed and where I have to live, as long as I can fly.”
by Lee Ho-jeong