Keeping children entertained on a long-haul flight is a tough task but Etihad Airways have come up with a new approach ¿ they are training cabin staff in how to keep younger passengers entertained and aim to have 500 flying by the end of the year, as Rym Ghazal reports
Upset child? Send for Etihad's Flying Nanny
Mary Poppins, of course, was the original flying nanny. But now she has company, thanks to an initiative from Etihad Airways.
Instead of an oversized carpet bag and a giant umbrella, these childcare experts can be identified by bright orange aprons and back packs to produce a variety of tricks and skills to keep even the most restless young traveller entertained at 11,000 metres.
The "Flying Nanny" is the latest service launched by the airline to help families, particularly single parents and unaccompanied travelling minors, so that have someone they can turn to on flights.
"I never knew we had so much material in our carts that could be turned into works of art and entrainment," said Carla Ranage from Scotland as she turned an Etihad hot-beverage cup into a bunny using stickers, scissors and colouring pens.
Other characters on the revised passenger list include Zoe the bee, Jamool the camel, Kundai the lion, and Boo the panda - along with colourful sock puppets likely to be found peeking out from behind seats.
They form part of "the nanny kit", filled with games and handicrafts related to these new animal characters as well as other surprises to keep the children entertained.
Lisa Mclean-Smith, also from the UK, sitting next to her, was adding last touches to a pink sock, a curly blonde hairlike piece to the dragon-like puppet. It had a row of star stickers for its teeth.
"This is fun, we get to be creative and help children feel at home on long, tiresome flights," said Lisa.
Despite being in their early 20s and without children of their own, the two have plenty of experience of taking care of youngsters in their extended families back home and so love being around them that they volunteered to be part of the first batch of official nannies.
In the air they are equipped with a special kit containing straws, stickers, cardboard, games, and other arts and crafts pieces such as creating special greeting cards for friends and family. Besides paper-cup characters, the children will learn how to turn them into hats and even learn the Japanese art of origami where paper is folded and turned into sculptures.
All the activities are designed so the Flying Nanny can leave the children to produce and complete tasks on their own.
"We will be the extra hands and ears that will be there for the parents and for the children themselves," said Carla.
The two cabin crew members are from among the 300 cabin crew with different nationalities that have completed special training for the nanny role in the last two months. A further 60 will be trained in September and 500 Flying Nannies will be working across Etihad Airways flights by the end of this year.
The job includes serving children's meals early in the flight and offering challenges to help entertain and occupy younger guests throughout. Passengers may even notice that the cabin staff sometime look younger than usual, with children being allowed to help out with duties such as distributing food and blankets.
"We don't have passengers, we have guests on our flights, and so we are always coming up with ways to make their travels easier and more comfortable," said Aubrey Tiedt, Etihad Airways' vice president for Guest Services.
As a former cabin crew member and a regular traveller, Ms Tiedt understands the challenges of long trips from both prospectives.
"The feeling that there is someone there on a flight equipped to help and understand children provides a kind of a safety net for the parents who often feel alone and are under immense stress from their children and sometimes from other guests - who are themselves tired and under stress - and so are not patient with younger guests sitting next to them," she said.
Etihad's Flying Nannies will also carry out regular cabin-crew work alongside their childcare role.
"The orange apron is important as then the nanny will be easily identified and recognised as the point of reference for both parents and children, because often to them the cabin crew all look similar to each other because of their uniform," said Ms Tiedt. As for the name, the airlines was searching for a name that evokes a warm and nostalgic feeling.
"Internationally people understand the term nanny, as someone who takes care of you, and that is what Flying Nannies is all about," she said. "Ultimately, it is about having a support system in the sky."
The nannies will also be available on the ground in the first and business-class lounges. There is also a children's play area in Terminal 3 at the Abu Dhabi International Airport and in the premium lounges. The Flying Nanny course is being held at the Etihad Airways Training Academy where it teaches trainees about their role and responsibilities, such as introducing themselves to families at the gate and providing assistance with boarding, as well as creative ways to better interact and entertain children while in-flight.
The course also includes a day hosted by trainers from the world renowned Norland College, famous for its nanny graduates. With a specialisations in child psychology and sociology, the trainers help the nannies identify the different types of behaviour and developmental stages that children go through and how to appreciate the perspective and needs of travelling families.
"It is about respecting the child and understanding how they view the world at a particular age group," said Rosemary Albone, a former nanny and trainer who held a workshop at Etihad.
One of the smallest yet important issues that Ms Albone brought up was terminology.
"They are not kids, they are children. They want to listen and they want to be involved, it is all about how you talk to them and how you listen," she said.
One of the changes she had noticed in the batches she was training is that the "idea" of a child has changed.
"These ladies are no longer intimated by the children, they understand them better. They also understand the parents better, as the child takes its cues from the parents. If they are stressed out and anxious, the child becomes stressed and acts out."
Teenagers tend to entertain themselves, both with in-flight entertainment and their own carry-on gadgets and electronics. With the younger ones, expect to see the Flying Nannies teaching them simple magic tricks as they remain seated.
They are also well provided with quizzes and challenges if children ask for them, and can even be taken on tours of the galley during quieter times of the flight.
Parents flying with babies and infants will also a get a break. The nannies are ready to help by carrying the baby for a few minutes while the parent goes to the washroom and will replenish milk bottles and offer items such as water, fruit and other snacks, especially if the family is going on to a connecting flight.
Amal Khataya, a mother of two, who will be flying this month to the US with Etihad, says she can't wait to spot "the lady in orange".
"Unless you travel with children, you won't understand the amount of stress and hassle involved. To have anyone there who is understanding of what you go through and knows what to do, is enough to make you feel more at ease and comfortable," she said.
"When the baby starts crying, other passengers give you the evil look like somehow you are doing this on purpose, making the flight difficult and noisy for them. I am so glad there will be a Flying Nanny to assist me by simply smiling at me."