High-flier pulls back curtain and reveals first-class antics
WHEN all but a few of us step on to a commercial aeroplane we turn right. It's virtually a reflex action.
To the right is economy, and sometimes business class, where most of us spend our flights, whether it is a quick domestic jaunt or a long-haul overseas journey.
It is someone else who gets to turn left, into a world most of us will never visit. The world of first class, where the seats lay down flat, meals are a la carte and eaten with silver cutlery, and the ticket prices look more like the taxable income of those who turn right.
That was Owen Beddall's world for much of his 10 years as a Qantas flight attendant, a world where he has pulled back the dividing curtain and given us a chance to look inside with his book Confessions of a Qantas Flight Attendant.
Owen has filled his book with often hilarious, sometimes uncomfortable stories about celebrities, business people, millionaires and flight attendants, the type of people who inhabit what wasn't the most likely world for "a half-caste boy adopted from Darwin" who grew up in Grafton in northern New South Wales. But his outgoing nature made it a perfect fit.
"One day a friend of mine got a job at Qantas and said 'this is a really good job, you should try it', so I tried and luckily enough I got in," the 37-year-old said. "I was accepted in 2001 and was already to go and come out into the Qantas world but September 11 happened and that basically stopped air travel for everyone.
"Then in late 2002 I was on a casual contract and was about to go permanent but was held up by the Bali bombings."
Once he was in the air on a regular basis, however, it proved to be a job that fitted Owen ideally.
He loved the glamorous side but was also keen to point out that flying through endless time zones and dealing with passengers in such a confined space, even in first class, has a tough side. "There are definitely elements of glamour to it. You are rubbing shoulders with some of the elite people in the world, the highest calibre celebrities in the world," he said.
"You are travelling to the best countries in the world and staying in gorgeous hotels, but on board you're not laying down in a first class bed, you're walking to the destination.
"It is a very physical job, people don't necessarily think that. Those service carts are very heavy and you're pulling them and you've basically got a workforce of 70% gay guys, 29% women and the odd straight guy here and there."
First class was always the destination Owen had in mind, although he says some flight attendants prefer to spend their time in economy, where the interaction with passengers is less.
"I liked the stimulation, being around those sorts of people and the work for me was a lot easier because there was three staff on for 14 passengers, as opposed to four staff down the back for 300."
Rubbing shoulders with celebrities and others at the pointy end of the plane planted the seed for Owen's book, which will be launched on Monday and has attracted worldwide interest.
"It started as an idea for a coffee table book. When I was on flights I would collect photos or stories or mementos. I had tennis tickets from Venus Williams and she was on a flight and I got her to sign them, or passenger lists with famous people on them, or funny things that just reminded me of a story," he said.
"I always thought of doing that but there was no market for it and no way to link the stories.
"Then once I had my injury (Owen fell down stairs while training in 2011 and broke his back) I was off work for a year and was in a depressed state. I'd had to learn to walk again and my whole life had stopped as I knew it.
"So I started to write these stories and write about the injury and it became quite cathartic. That's what started to flesh the bones of the stories.
"I was fortunate that I met a publisher from London on the plane and was telling him about it and he said 'that sounds fantastic, send it to me'.
"Then we got a synopsis together to send out as a real pitch and fortunately six publishing houses came back and it went into a bidding war."
Owen has changed the names of his former colleagues to protect their identities, but the celebrities haven't been so lucky. If you thought you'd heard everything about Grant Hackett and his problems with Stilnox sleeping pills, there's more in the book.
"I wanted to treat the flight attendants with respect," he said. "I didn't want it to seem like they are running around as flying mattresses or whatever, but I wanted to show the comedy of the job.
"I wanted to show the good, the bad and the ugly.
"I was conscious of not hurting anyone's feelings but I also wanted it to be honest and reflective of what goes on."
Owen left Qantas in 2013 and was happy to leave the world of first class behind, although if the book lives up to its promise he may be back there as a paying customer.
"We always knew there would be a lot of interest from cabin crews but we've found there is also a lot of interest from expatriates and frequent flyers that are very interested in what goes on."