On being a Butler onboard The Residence, Etihad Airlines

Ever wondered what it takes to land the coveted job of a butler of the luxurious The Residence onboard Etihad Airlines?  Barbara Szep shares her career journey with us…

Trained at London’s The Savoy Hotel, the Butlers of The Residence onboard Etihad Airlines have elevated personal service to new heights. Anne Kurian talks to Barbara Szep, one of the female butlers with the airline, to learn what it entails to be one of the first butlers of the aviation industry.

Please tell us about yourself – your background, career journey and how you came to work at Etihad.

It sounds like a cliché but it was my childhood dream to fly. When I was seven, I took my first flight from Budapest to Greece and I knew straight away that I wanted to be a member of an airline’s cabin crew team. I wanted the uniform; I wanted the scarf. When I turned 18, I enrolled in an aviation course in Budapest and started working at the international airport – this was the first time I got to wear a uniform and immerse myself in the aviation industry. Whilst I was studying, I worked two jobs and learnt German and French.

I knew though, if I wanted to fly, I had to learn English. When I turned 22, I bought a one-way ticket to London. With enough money for just one week’s rent, I had to get a job straight away and with very little English, the only thing I could do was housekeeping at a hotel. I bought a Cambridge English grammar book and during my breaks, I would try and learn more and more every day. As my English got better, I progressed into the Food and Beverage Department. I had my heart set on joining an airline and researched images of Etihad Airways flight attendants. I don’t actually know why but I printed off the picture and stuck it onto my locker door at work. I wanted that hat! Once I felt my English was good enough, I applied. I answered all the questions correctly but in a moment of self-doubt, I changed them all. I didn’t make the cut. Despite this, I reapplied nine months later and I got the job as a Flight Attendant.

As an Etihad Butler, what are your responsibilities?

My role is to create a memorable experience for our guests travelling in The Residence. It’s my job to pay attention to the little details and to offer immaculate hospitality service. If I see my guests are watching a movie, I will give them something to snack on without being asked. Who doesn’t love eating crisps when they are watching a movie?

Can you elaborate on the training process on becoming a butler with Etihad?

I began my career with Etihad as a Flight Attendant in Economy. I did this for 10 months before my strong performance saw me was promoted to the airline’s Business Class cabin. Expecting to do this for a while, I was once again honoured to be promoted to First after just three months, a role I then held for an additional 18 months. Before joining Etihad, my goal was to rise as far as possible within Cabin Crew but when the role of Butler came up, I was intrigued and put my name forward. To be selected to become a butler, you need to have been either a First Class attendant or an F&B Manager – preferably with a hospitality background. Fortunately, I was selected and went to London to receive my professional training for one week at the luxurious Savoy Hotel. Their service delivery was second to none. From the way they behave, walk and talk – it was an experience I will never forget. Following this, we spent an additional week at the Etihad Innovation Centre learning about The Residence, familiarising ourselves with the high level of standard operation procedures expected for this three-room suite in the sky.

Female butlers are not a common occurrence in the workplace. How does it feel to be amongst the chosen few?

Every day, it’s my honour and privilege, as a woman, to represent Etihad, The Residence and the wider butler team. While it’s not common in Arabic culture for women to perform this role, female guests travelling in The Residence tend to prefer and often request a female Butler. This actually allows me to meet more people, learn and grow – Etihad never stops presenting me with ongoing opportunities. I have held the Butler role for two and a half years now and I still enjoy every minute of it.

Please share some of your favourite moments whilst working as an Etihad Butler?

As a Butler, my proudest moment is when guests who frequently fly The Residence request for me to be on their flight by name. It has happened a number of times, especially with Emirati families. They know that I know what they like and it’s an honour to be continuously sought after. Last year, one particular Emirati family who frequently request me, had their daughter travelling with them last year from Sydney to Abu Dhabi. It was her sixth birthday and we arranged a special surprise birthday cake for her onboard in The Lobby. We presented her with a card (in Arabic) signed by the pilots and the crew. To witness her joy and be able to make her and her family so happy was priceless. These are the moments that keep me motivated and make me love my job.

People often ask me about celebrities, royal family and ministers. While yes, I have had the pleasure of having many of them on my flight, I don’t treat them any differently. All of our guests are VIPs. We remain professional and respectful of our guest’s privacy regardless of who they are.

How do you feel about how Etihad having Butlers and how they’re changing the face of personalised service in the aviation industry?

Our guests in The Residence expect a certain level of luxury – it is after all, similar to a private jet experience, just on a commercial aircraft. To provide this service, Etihad had to be at the forefront when it comes to identifying and selecting how their VIP guests should be served. To know I am providing a premium service no other traveller has experienced in commercial aviation is second to none. There are no limits when it comes to requests and I’m proud to be part of a team that continues to strive for the very best.