JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. – Bret Baker welcomes customers aboard a Boeing 757 wearing a three-piece suit and a sparkling smile. His manner is all Friendly Skies but his pocket patch bears the seal of the Vice President of the United States, signaling that this is government business.
And though his brass name tag reads, simply, "Bret," make no mistake: That's Air Force Tech. Sgt. Baker ensuring that seat belts are fastened and carry-ons securely stowed. He's also responsible for making sure meals have been prepared for dozens of passengers who really didn't have time to pick up snacks before boarding, and whose far-flung destinations may not include safe or familiar foods.
Baker is a military flight attendant, part of a team serving America's top government officials, their staffs, guests and reporters aboard 19 planes flown by the 89th Airlift Wing out of Joint Base Andrews near Washington. Their customers include the president, vice president, first lady, secretary of state, secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As attendants on Air Force One and other VIP planes flying as many as 1,000 missions a year, they perform all the safety and comfort functions of their commercial airline counterparts and more. Hurried departures and delays to accommodate impromptu news conferences are common. The attendants also must buy ingredients and prepare meals to their customer's preferences — sometimes on a day's notice.
More of them are learning advanced culinary techniques since the Air Force began flying expert chefs to Andrews in the last 18 months. During a session last week, 12 attendants in olive-green flight suits butterflied chicken breasts and chopped asparagus under the eyes of Melissa Bigelow, a Los Angeles-based "chef to the stars" who has cooked for Tom Cruise and Simon Cowell. The artfully heaped plates of chicken paillard, mashed potatoes and vegetables were a tasty testament to the five-star service the unit aims to provide.
Bigelow is with The Corporate School of Etiquette, based in Long Beach, Calif. The Air Force hired the school to teach three classes at Andrews at $22,000 per class. Before that, some flight attendants went to Long Beach on scholarships or took occasional classes at the New York-based Culinary Institute of America.
Good food can help busy government officials focus on important work during flights, Air Force officials say. And they don't want to read headlines about in-flight food complaints, as happened several years ago.
"You want that leader to be well-rested and well-fed," said Maj. Michelle Lai, the unit's spokeswoman.
"I don't necessarily want the president or the secretary of state going over to make decisions about nuclear policy on a bag of peanuts," she said.
Bringing an expert chef to Andrews is cheaper than flying the students to California, said Tech Sgt. Khristine Farmer, a flight-attendant evaluator who helped develop the advanced-cooking program.
She said fine dining should be a realistic option for clients aboard the fleet's distinctive, blue-and-white aircraft, but they can opt for more pedestrian fare.
"If they decide they want peanut-butter-and-jelly, they get peanut-butter-and-jelly. If they decide they want filet, they get filet," she said.
The prepared meals are frozen and packed on board for trips that can sometimes last for days.
In-flight food quality hasn't always been a high point. The Wenatchee World, of Wenatchee, Wash., reported in 2005 that an aide to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice led a revolt against Wing Dings, commercially processed chicken wings, on the State Department plane.
Lai said food choices are made by the clients, not the flight attendants. "So if 'Wing Dings' were served on each trip, that was based on the party's selection, not a crew decision," she wrote in an email.
Lai said the attendants make meals from scratch whenever feasible but may use processed foods to augment menus on short notice.
"I think Air Force One food is great and that the personnel on board are all first rate," he wrote in an email.
The food purchasing and preparation is done solely by each flight's attendants, partly for security reasons.
"The crew are the only ones that are involved in any part of the food we serve, from start to finish," Farmer said. "No one else handles the food."
Nonperishable leftovers are saved for the next trip. The Associated Press was shown a closet shelf earmarked for the joint chiefs' chairman that held some Guinness beer and Kellogg's Nutri-Grain cereal bars. A shelf reserved for the secretary of state was stacked with cases of Deer Park water and snacks.
The Air Force is choosy about flight attendants. They must have exemplary service records and be eligible for presidential security clearance. Lai said there are openings every year for the 164 flight attendant positions. The applicants must submit three references and pass muster with a hiring board that places a high value on personality and professionalism.
Recent graduate Tech. Sgt. Erica Fowler, 30, of Phoenixville, Pa., said she applied for a flight-attendant opening after 11 years in the Air Force, most recently as dining hall manager.
"It's the best job in the Air Force," she said.
Tech. Sgt. Baker, 30, of Lakewood, Colo., has served on Air Force One and now leads the vice president's flight-attendant crew. He said he's been to 65 countries in his 4 1/2 years as a flight attendant.
"We work as a team, we work as a crew, we represent the Air Force and, of course, we represent the nation as well," Baker said.
Corporate School of Etiquette President Donna Casacchia, whose company also trains attendants for private jets, said those with Air Force experience are in high demand among Fortune 500 companies.
"Their experience, their worldwide knowledge of cultural differences and their knowledge of food is superb," she said.