As a retired flight attendant, I look back on memories of my life as a hostess in the sky with fondness. I was hired at the age of 19, by Delta Air Lines, then I started training when I was 20 years old. The year was 1978, and air travel was still elegant and the job was considered glamorous. I had always wanted to be a flight attendant ever since I read the book, “Coffee, Tea, or Me” when I was quite young. I took a trip to Europe with my elementary school and I was quite fascinated with the stewardesses who were all so pretty and elegant. I remember the plane ride like it was yesterday. I really wanted to travel the world like they did.
In 1978, the interviews were held at the corporate offices of Delta in Atlanta, Georgia. I was sent a ticket to Atlanta and really had no idea what the dress code was nor what was expected of me. I was very fortunate to get an interview and it is still very difficult to get hired by Delta Air Lines. I arrived at the interview with a dress I found to be quite pretty. It was brown, with a Chinese style jacket, and delicate embroidery. I had on 5-inch heels that matched my dress. I walked into the waiting area and 40 other people (mostly women in those days) turned and looked at me with surprise. They all had on the same clothing style: a plain navy suit, including the men. I was a little intimidated by that. I have always been my own person, so I felt I could do well by standing out as a unique individual. I met with the first interviewer and she immediately brought up my outfit! I explained I was a disco dancer and this is how we dressed when dancing. That was the only style I knew. I was hired and my nickname in training was “Disco.”
After graduation from training, a group of us were put in the Atlanta base, although we did have a base in Miami. We all rented in the same place that was close to the airport and we waited to be called for work since we were on reserve. We carried a “beeper” when we were not near a phone. We had to always have a bag packed for trips and be ready at all times for our job. It definitely took getting used to. I remember my first flights as hectic, but I have always been a quick learner. I worked very hard to do my best.
I became proficient quickly and even was made flight leader rapidly. I received a base transfer to Miami and was again living with a group of flight attendants who rented at the same apartment complex in Kendall, Florida. One of those flight attendants was in the famous crash of the Air Florida Flight 90 that hit a bridge during a snow storm leaving Washington National Airport. Her name is Kelly Duncan and we were friends, her father was a captain at Delta. Kelly survived, and I will always remember watching her on television being lifted out of that icy water still in her flight service smock. We were all so young and didn’t look at our job as scary. This changed all of us at our apartment complex. We realized we were not just in this job for fun and travel, we were there for safety more than anything else.
I was the youngest in my class and at my base in Miami; however, I also acquired seniority quickly. Many hired after me would stay on reserve for years, but I held a “line” as it was called back then in my 6th month of flying. I held really awful routes, but I knew my schedule. I always ended up with New York City layovers, and I was the A-Line quite often, which is what the flight leader was called in 1978. One time I was on the DC ‘stretch’8 as the A-line flying home to Miami from LaGuardia airport and the engines caught fire as we started taking off. The flight was aborted immediately. I was only 21 years old. I did as I had been taught for emergencies and spoke with the Captain immediately. He said to have everyone remain seated. I walked back through the cabin and looked out the windows and saw we were surrounded by fire trucks. Then we were towed back to the airport. The passengers were taking photos, and they didn’t panic. However, they did complain a lot about the delay. We changed airplanes and made it back to Miami that night. I think when this happened, I really grew up and into my job. To this day, I don’t panic when there is a situation that requires attention or there is an emergency.
Many people think of flight attendants as waitresses in the skies, but nothing could be further from the truth. As I continued on with my life as a flight attendant I remained based in Miami and Delta had opened a base in Ft. Lauderdale. I moved to Ft. Lauderdale because this is where I grew up and I had many close friends. We often buddy bid together and swapped trips to fly with each other or to change our schedules. Then the unthinkable happened. Flight 191 from Ft. Lauderdale to Dallas, crashed with all of my friends working for that flight. This crash resulted in the longest aviation trial in history and many movies, documentaries, news articles were written about this horrific crash. To this day, I am friends with many of the same people and we always recognize this anniversary on social media. The friends we lost impacted all of us greatly. We were all changed forever by the loss of our friends. Three of our co-workers survived. I am friends with one of them. A lovely courageous soul who wasn’t injured, but had to watch fireballs flying by and see others dying. She was one of the last to leave the tail section that had broken away from the other part of the Lockheed L-1011 aircraft. She had to get help to get another survivor from the plane. We all had done this trip before. They should have ended up in Los Angeles International Airport, a favorite layover spot for all of us at the time. I was in Dallas on a layover when this crash happened. I remember taking off and flying over the debris of the crash. It was there for quite a long time. When I arrived home I had a voice message on my recorder from Diane Johnson, a flight attendant killed in the crash. It haunts me to this day.
Many wonder what life is like for a flight attendant. What we do on layovers, how hard is the job, do we mind going away from our families, what is it like for boarding and deplaning, our work rules and more. As I continued with my career, times changed and so did my job. I was able to hold nice layovers, and as usual, I flew with my friends. The job is not easy. We have to board and set up the plane before the passengers enter and wait until the last passenger leaves before we either go on to another flight or a layover. I flew domestically for most of my career and LAX layovers were always the best to have. We would always have celebrities on our flights back in those days. I had so many bands, singers, politicians, sports players announcers, actors, a prince, and even a President. Richard Nixon flew on my plane, and I have an autographed personal card from him. Prince Albert of Monaco was another guest in first class. He did like to flirt and he did with me when I served him. Most celebrities are really nice, but I had Coretta Scott King on my flight and she would not even speak with me or order her own food or beverages, but her bodyguard gave me an autographed pamphlet. Huey Lewis is one of my favorites and he spent most of his flight in the galley chatting with us flight attendants. I had Bill Gates and he was super humble and nice also. You just never knew who would be showing up on any flight, but as progress took over, we would get manifests that would show who the first class passengers were and we would know beforehand sometimes. Joan Rivers was a hoot, and she was so tiny. I remember her eyes watered the entire flight like she had just had surgery on them. Sometimes a famous person would give us tickets to shows or invite us out.
What do we do on layovers? If it is short, we sleep. If it is long, we go out and have fun. I flew International during my final years and we had to set an alarm when we would arrive because we flew all night. Two hours was the limit we would sleep and then we would meet and do fun things, I have seen a lot of the world. Rome is a favorite, any layover in South America is always fun. I have ended up living in Colombia as an expat because I enjoyed my time spent in Guatemala, Buenos Aires, Chile, and Peru. Because of my training in customer service, I have opened an Ecolodge in Colombia for those who enjoy nature and adventure. Paris is a lovely city that I never tire of, so is Dublin, Ireland. Who could get tired of traveling to other countries? I enjoyed many fun layovers in Germany also. My favorite domestic layovers were California, Arizona, NYC, Boston, and Savannah, GA. However, there were always fun things to do everywhere, if we had enough time. I loved my San Diego layovers, many times I would go with fellow flight attendants to visit Tijuana, Mexico. One time we rented horses and rode on the beach in California. The only problem was our horses were untrained and went crazy on us. They took off riding in the direction of Mexico. Picture this, people sunbathing and seeing 4 horses out of control running on the beach, all the people were running away, or entering the water! I was holding on with my hands, thinking I am going to fall off! I had ridden horses since I was really young, this was something I have never experienced since. I will never forget the loudspeaker “GO BACK YOU ARE ENTERING MEXICO!” and all of the people running into the ocean just like a real movie scene. I still can’t believe we weren’t arrested. I finally got control of my horse and we all turned back and entered United States soil again. But the horses were sweating and horribly upset. One horse escaped. So we had three horses and 4 of us. We tried to get two of us on the same horse but that didn’t work. Slowly we started back, and all of a sudden an all-terrain vehicle came up and took our friend with them. We returned all the horses, the one that escaped was back already and we drove our rental car back to the hotel. Just one adventure of many in my 30 years of flying. A memorable one for sure.
As I grew older, I found my patience was thin for the demanding passengers that seemed to feel that with their tickets they bought the airplane and the crew. Cellphones and computers were always on even when people were told to turn them off. People wouldn’t follow instructions when there was turbulence, and the days became longer. Delta could keep us on duty for over 16 hours if they called irregular operations. This is a part of the job passengers have no idea. There were many times all I had to eat were the snacks offered to the passengers. I did take a bag of food with me all the time, and it isn’t easy to pack an entire food bag for a 3-day trip. When the terror attack of 9/11 happened, everything changed. The fun camaraderie enjoyed by flight crews of all bases ended. We became like soldiers in the sky. We were often told in our yearly training classes for updated security and safety, to look for the danger that now is a part of our job experience. It was still fun to get together with others on layovers, but the job was one of the intense briefings before flights, and many flight attendants took it too far. I can say I have lost friends over their actions on the plane. They became mini dictators, and I didn’t like it. As flight attendants, we are the boss of ourselves in the air. The flight leader gave the briefings, but many became different. Mini drill sergeants with ridiculous expectations. The fun for me left. I didn’t like it. I was offered a buyout at the age of 50. I had always been young for my seniority and I retired with 30 years and 4 months. I can never describe what my job as a flight attendant gave me, except to say, I am doing well operating a hotel in another country. I have even learned to speak Spanish. I think a person who takes on the job as a flight attendant has a special part of their soul seeking adventure. I am certain that describes my outlook on life completely. Adventure is the word for all flight attendants.
This article is written by Michele Huffman Carson. You can read more about Michele in her upcoming book.
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I was hired in the 1st class after a no hire period of 2 years. 3/1/76 is my hire date and I am still flying. Not even recognizable as the same job. Glad I am not starting out now. Ms King did not speak to us either and we got no autograph, but can relate on the many celebrities I have carried. It has been a fun ride and never boring. Our world did change after 911. I am in ATL and worked 65 days last year. All the benefits make it hard to go , 5 weeks vacation , 401 K matching and am now getting social security $. Will go soon but have had the time of my life. Did we ever fly together? Flew as Susan Reed-Wattecamps. Look forward to buying your book.