Being a Mary Poppins of the skies

Being a Mary Poppins of the skies

A ''Flying Nanny'' on board one of Etihad's A380s.
A ''Flying Nanny'' on board one of Etihad's A380s.

Small feet kicking the back of the seat. An incessantly crying baby. A toddler running up and down the aisle.

There is perhaps only one thing worse than getting on a plane to find a child next to you - and that is going on a long-haul flight with your own child; when you fear that your neighbours will be looking askance, and the option of sinking a large glass to calm your own nerves isn't an option in case you have to cope with a meltdown at 30,000ft.

At which point you could only wish that someone - preferably Mary Poppins - could take charge of your offspring. Or perhaps a Norland nanny - best known for looking after royals and celebrities.

If you think this might be outside your budget, meet Georgina Tait. Tait, 25, is a Norland-trained "flying nanny" - one of a select breed of child whisperers introduced by Etihad Airways to try to smooth out the daunting task of taking children on long flights. 

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Originally from the West Country, Tait had what she describes as an idyllic childhood. Her father, Nevil, works in construction, and her mother, Karen, is a project manager. While she only has one younger sister, Jessica, she was fortunate to have a wide extended family around her on whom to practise. "There were a lot of cousins - around 20 of us," she recalls. "So we had a massive clan, with all of us older ones looking after the younger ones. I was really fortunate to have such a close family and we were always brought up to love looking after each other." 

Tait was originally drawn to working in the police force. "I always loved watching The Bill, but then I realised that I wanted to interact with people for my career and I didn't want a job where interacting with them meant arresting them," she said wryly. So she chose to become a flying nanny instead. She faced initial opposition from her mother, who was shocked at her change of direction, seeing the job as nothing more than being a "waitress with wings".

But Tait was determined, supported by her grandfather, who was a former RAF pilot and delighted she would be taking to the air, and her mother was mollified by the fact that Etihad nannies were going to be trained by the prestigious Norland College.

Since it was founded in 1892, Norland has provided nannies to the rich and famous. Mick Jagger employed Norland nannies, the Cambridges' nanny, Maria Borrallo, is a Norlander, and so were the nannies hired by the Princess Royal and Sarah, Duchess of York. 

The training programme set up by the college for selected Etihad crew is not just about how to soothe a crying child. It involves understanding the family unit and becoming familiar with different stages of child development. Because of the nature of the job, cultural differences and how to communicate effectively with families from different places are also integral parts of the training.

All nannies are provided with a practical flying nanny kit for use on board, containing face paints, origami and arts and crafts materials, and given training on how to use them - because being a high-altitude Mary Poppins can be hard work.

Tait hands out a "nanny pack" at the beginning of each flight, containing items such as crayons and masks, but she often ends up creating wands or bumblebees out of pipe cleaners or taking restless children to the galley, where they dance and act out little plays. "I'm a very theatrical person, so that's what I like to do," she says. "I have to admit that the one thing I don't do, that some of the other flying nannies do, is face painting, as I'm not an artist. I could manage a spider on a cheek or something simple, but any child who wanted to be transformed into the Hulk or Batman would be severely disappointed," she laughs. 

Nannies also commonly write an individual card or certificate, which they present to the child at the end of their flight. If a child has a birthday, they will be treated to a rendition of Happy Birthday and a special treat.

More than 500 nannies have now been trained for the airline. They all wear a bright orange uniform to distinguish them from other cabin crew, so they can be easily spotted. And the service is not just for those with the budget of the royals and celebrities - it's completely free, and offered in economy class. 

The flying nannies particularly look out for single parents who may have their hands full. And Tait is always willing to share her vast experience of looking after children in the air - she estimates that she will probably care for 400 different children over the flights she takes in the course of a month, and after three years, that puts her running total at roughly 15,000. 

Her main tip for anxious parents is to pay attention to sleeping patterns: tempting as the in-flight entertainment is, and confusing as the time zones are, you have to insist that your children sleep. 

More than 500 nannies have now been trained for Etihad.
More than 500 nannies have now been trained for Etihad.

"Parents shouldn't feel guilty about using the in-flight entertainment in moderation to keep the kids amused," Tait says. But she also warns: "If you're flying London to Australia you could end up with 24 hours in the air. And if they are overexcited, watching movies and doing things, they could end up not sleeping for a whole day and they'll get sick."

Ensuring that you set your destination time zone as soon as possible on the flight can also help minimise the risk of minis with jet lag. 

For younger jet-setters, the airline has baby food and nappies on board, but Tait recommends bringing extra yourself in case an unfamiliar brand unsettles a baby or toddler. Bottles, sweets or even a convenient thumb are useful to suck on for take-off and landing to ease pressure on small ears.

Whatever else you neglect to pack, she says, never forget the favourite cuddly toy - particularly vital for the three-to-five age group. "You don't know when you are going to need them," she says. "A lot of younger children find it difficult to sit still for such a long time, and they want to be roaming around. For safety's sake, we can't allow them to lie on the floor and there are times when they have to wear a seat belt in the air beyond take-off and landing, so you need to have something that you can give them as a reward for good behaviour."

Tait tells me that her favourite time in the air was "looking after two small sisters who wouldn't leave my side". She recalls: "It wasn't enough for me just to keep drawing or playing with them - the younger one, Sophia, insisted on coming around and learning how to give out snacks to the passengers. We must have served about 50 guests, all smiling broadly at the four-year-old girl handing out snacks."

When Tait has children of her own, she says, she'll have no fear of taking them on a flight. Not because of her great experience, but for a reason that most worried parents would benefit from hearing. 

"Just stay as relaxed as you can," she says. "The truth is that most people aren't looking at you, or they understand. I see so many parents getting worried when they have a crying baby. What they fail to realise is that most people have their headphones on for the whole flight and won't ever hear their child."

Sunday Telegraph

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