Susan C. Friedenberg: Business aviation is all about safety and people

Today’s business aviation industry is known for its luxurious flight perks and benefits which are usually associated with $60 million private jets. Commonly chartered by the rich and famous, business aviation flights are the epitome of personalized air travel. But a lot goes on behind the scenes to achieve such luxurious levels of service.

“I tell my students when you’re in the back of a jet with these people, whether they’re famous rock stars or political people or wealthy people, you’re a paid guest in the back of that aircraft,” says Susan C. Friedenberg, CEO of Corporate Flight Attendant Training.

“If it’s Part 91 operation, it is a corporation’s aircraft and they are historically traveling for business purposes and are holding meetings onboard. It is a flying state of the art office on the aircraft and they are traveling to attend a meeting or going to visit plant sites/their businesses globally. Part 91 is also wealthy people that own their own aircraft. Part 135 is a chartered aircraft. It is chartered by the hour at a price point that reflects the equipment size. I liken it to a flying taxi cab for the rich. So, your job is to secure the cabin safety-wise, do an impeccable “SAFE” detailed catering meal service, and you’ve got to make sure your caterer is reliable. FDA inspected, has insurance, and is approved/verified by their local board of health. Food safety is paramount. And then you disappear. “It’s not about you”. This is a business tool or a personally owned aircraft and the passengers need for you to give them “space”.

Susan heads up a consultancy which offers training services to people who are looking to build a career as a flight attendant in the private jet business. She started her own aviation career flying for American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) and then for Capitol Air and has been involved in business aviation for the past 34 years. During that time, she has flown as a contract flight attendant, with a coast-to-coast clientele list that boasts names such as President Jimmy Carter, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., the late US Senator Robert J. Dole, and Sir Paul McCartney, and as a full-time flight attendant for Coca Cola, DuPont Aviation, and American Standard Companies. In 1999 she started her own training company and has never looked back.  

“Safety and attention to detail are paramount in this business,” says Susan. “I tell my students that you have to dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T’. Once you’re up at 45,000 feet, there’s no supermarket. There’s no 7-Eleven to get anything, you have to plan in advance for what you need.”

She adds: “In life there are things that you do and you’re not good at, and then in life, there are things that you do and right out of the ballpark you’re good at it and I was great at this from the beginning. I was in shock that I could do a four-course hot meal service ordering catering on a Falcon 50 with a little tiny galley with a high low oven and pull it off with a small crew of people. And from that I just knew that I’d found my place in aviation.” 

Susan describes the preparations for private flights as an intense process and a stark contrast from her days as a commercial flight attendant, a job she did for 15 years. When she transitioned to business and private aviation flights, she discovered a completely different environment where preparations would usually begin up to a week before the flight itself.

“You really have to have a certain skill set to do this. I could get a call tonight to do a trip on Sunday and I’m already starting to work. I’m not going to get paid for the pre-work I do, but I’m already thinking who are my passengers? Do they have any food allergies or any dietary restrictions? Are they traveling with children? Or do they have pets with them? I have to start doing all my research and find caterers domestically because, once you leave the country, there’s not always a readily available business aviation caterer. So, you have to prepare and think.”

She says that safety is of the utmost importance when it comes to any flight. Referring to the example set by her father, who was a World War Two hero and always ready to help and assist people, Susan says: “I took that safety culture to the airplane, that safety comes first, customer service second.

“When I flew for American and then Capitol, I realized that I needed to have special training for the private jets…because everything would be completely different. When you’re on a private jet, you’re by yourself. When you’re flying commercially, you can have anywhere from two to seven other people with you. But on a private jet if there’s an accident, planned or unplanned you have to be ready.”

In her search for this special training, Susan found a school for Egress training for private jets called FACTS Training, and it was at this school that she met Dr Beau Altman, known as the grandfather of business aviation evacuation and the man who brought safety to business aviation. Susan was later trained and mentored by Dr Altman.

Over the course of her career, Susan has flown with many high-profile individuals. These unique trips played a significant role in her decision to start her own training company for aspiring business aviation flight attendants.

“Flying these people has been a major experience and I just wanted to be able to share this with people.” She points out that safety is incredibly important, but being able to market yourself and your services is crucial in securing your footing in the industry.

“That’s why I started my training, I really wanted people to have the experience I’ve had because if you go just to emergency training, you can evacuate an aircraft, but you don’t know how to market yourself for this industry. You don’t understand the business of business aviation and how it supports the global economy and that it’s all over the world.”

Susan adds that as a corporate flight attendant it is crucial to understand the dynamics of working a trip from A to Z. This includes safety, ordering catering, transportation, international trip planning, understanding what it takes to move equipment around the world, and achieving the perfect synergy in crew resource management.

“You have to be flexible, creative and have accountability and integrity. You’ve got to be able to adapt to every company’s standard operational procedures because every company is different. You’ve got to be open-minded with high interpersonal skills and uncompromisable confidentiality. You’ve got to be beyond organized and perform safe and creative menu planning and food execution. And you’ve got to go to emergency training every year.

“I tell all my students, you are the future of business aviation. I want my legacy to be that either I or my students have created change in that that everybody is Egress trained if you’re in the back of a plane.”

If you want to find out more about Susan and the work she does, check out her company’s website here: 

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