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Costumed for a fateful day : inflight work organization and social relationship on commerical jets Nowakowsky, Mary Ann

Abstract

The paper presents a partial ethnography from the work setting of commercial jet aircraft. Data was collected through participant observation in the work role of stewardess, mostly on prestige overseas flights. The flight is therefore the unit of study and has been treated as a social occasion for sociological analysis. Post flight diaries were written up, additional data came from other airline sources, i.e. manuals of procedures, etc. The perspective is directed from the cabin crew as a performance team. The analysis is based on the everyday activities routinely performed as orderly events commonsensically produced by the persons located in the setting. The everyday work day's distinctive features i.e. crew impermanency, flight time and space pressures, excessively long on-duty periods, temporal marginality of duty periods, and stress norms, are described as a base from which to discuss team performances. The requirement to set up work units very quickly, crew impermanence and team performances are positively correlated to the need for members to know something about each other. Status dimensions and job specific preferred characteristics are therefore a relevant part of each person's floating biography which is occupationally positively functional as a base from which coworker selection is made. A setting orientation to ethnicity is an outcome of the presence of representatives from many cultural groups in the passenger population. Competency in the enactment of everyday activities is problematic and communication/interaction difficulties arise as a result. The lack of organizational structures to provide relevant kinds of information on passenger populations (relevant as defined by the members of the cabin crew) necessitates that they form cognitive visual maps of the setting and participants. It is suggested that this is typical to other occupations and settings. Other demographically related problems are discussed. Space and flight time pressures as related to territoriality, conflict behaviour and coercive practices used by the crew to maintain the social order are analyzed in terms of regions. An outcome of a lack of physical barriers is the socially constructed barriers of access to regions. Standardized patterns of work organization and social relationships are used to effect their fluctuating definitions. (They are mapped for visual reference.) Processes of personalization of participants is presented; contrastively, impersonalized service relationships are perceived to be an organizational work requirement, and are socially created by distinctive communication patterns for the purposes of getting the job done prior landing. Lastly, a flight is analyzed as a 'safe but dangerous' fateful event, organizationally constructed, and dramatized by the cabin crew. Ritual observance of passage of the take-off and landing stages of the occasion are imposed on all participants. Two products of safety management are the policing practices and gallows humor flight attendants are habituated to perceive as an everyday routine part of their job situation.

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