Interviews With Flight Attendants - Pam's Story
First in the Series
This begins a series of interviews that will share true stories of what it's like to work for the airlines as a flight attendant. In response to a series of questions this participant, whom we'll call Pam, shares her reasons for taking the job, her favorite destinations, her most harrowing experience on-board and her reason for leaving the airlines.
Question: Why Did You Want to Become a Flight Attendant?
Answer: Sitting in a Civics class in the 7th grade junior high school auditorium we were asked to write an essay on what it was we wanted to do for a living in the coming years. There was no hesitation in my mind as I wrote about my desires to become a stewardess, as they were called in that time. Whether they called it hostess, flight attendant or anything else, the idea of traveling across the globe and being paid for a job like that was appealing in every way.
DFW International Airport 1977
Q: What Qualities Landed the Job for You?
A: I’d grown up as a dependent of the Navy, the daughter of a U.S. Naval officer, so I was accustomed to living in different areas of the country, changing schools, friends, environments on a moment’s notice with each new set of orders my dad received. We lived in Navy cities across the east coast, moving from the Deep South to the Upper New England states overnight. That adaptability was what I emphasized at my initial interview with the airlines. It didn’t hurt that I’d worked in the hospitality industry at a local restaurant where I’d been a waitress, bartender and hostess.
"If I hear one more candidate tell me how they just 'love people' I think I'll scream."— Interviewer at Braniff
Q: Which Airlines Did You Work For?
A: I worked for Braniff International Airlines in 1977, for a very short time. Looking back, I can truthfully say that leaving was one of my biggest mistakes ever. Young, lonely, broke and isolated from all the people I called close friends, I succumbed and left after a devastating back injury that left me grounded for over a month. A love letter I received from a former boyfriend was the straw that sent me reeling over the edge to tender my resignation. It turns out he was secretly still married and hadn’t bothered sharing that information.
Q: What Was Your Favorite Trip?
A: My favorite trip had to be the flights aboard the Boeing 747. That enormous ship, capable of carrying 360 passengers daily from Dallas to Hawaii served first class food on real dishes in a setting of luxury and comfort. Before graduation from flight attendant training, we all dead headed to Hawaii to learn about the multiple food services, listen to the flight announcements and observe the operations of the crew that worked the eight-hour flight over. A few of us were privileged to ride in first class where the amenities seemed endless with snacks, beverages, movies and more. We worked the flight back to Dallas after a very brief layover in Hawaii that didn’t include overnight lodging.
Q: What Was Your Favorite Destination? Why?
A: For odd reasons, I loved flying into Wichita, Kansas where we stayed at a luxury hotel called the Wichita Royale. Unlike many places where the flight attendants were booked, this hotel had a variety of things to keep the traveler entertained, such as loner bicycles that were available to its guests. I remember joining a rookie crew that gathered after check in to take a ride through a beautifully landscaped bicycle path in the city.
Q: Which Route Did You Dislike the Most?
A: Most of those who flew during the rapid expansion of Braniff’s flight attendant staff served a reserve schedule which kept us available for whatever flights needed an extra pair of hands. One of my first experiences included working the “Kansas City Meal Run” a series of short legs with brief stopovers to deplane and board new passengers in the busy commuter hours between 4 pm and 8 pm. During a one-hour, ten minute flight, we served dinner meals and beverages to a full complement of passengers or around 128 meals in a span of fifty minutes of level flying. While we boarded more passengers between legs, we scurried around picking up the airplane (collecting magazines from seat pockets) along with any residual debris left in the seating area while the carrier food service restocked our galleys and the housekeeping services vacuumed and wiped down the cabin. Some of us busied ourselves icing down trays of plastic glasses to get a head start on the upcoming beverage and meal service of the next leg. Usually there were three meal services and two beverage services before our layover. It was exhausting.
Q: Describe Your Typical Work Schedule and Starting Salary
Answer: 24-hour reserves were paid a base salary for a minimum of 65 hours of flight time per month. Those hours did not include times when the plane was on the tarmac boarding passengers or allow for mechanical delays while we waited for repairs. It included only the time the aircraft was off the ground. The starting salary at the time I worked was $515.00 per month. That didn’t include the monthly deduction to pay for our uniforms. Any hours flown over the minimum would increase our earnings, but as a group of seemingly endless reserves, there was more than adequate staff available to fly limiting our ability to earn overtime.
Q: What Was Your Most Interesting Trip?
A: Following a trip to Hawaii where we deadheaded over on the flight from DFW to HNL, a rookie crew was assigned aboard a DC-8 Charter flight heading ultimately to Chicago via San Francisco. These passengers were on the return leg of a fabulous vacation and naturally, despondent that their dream trip was nearly over, it made things difficult in pleasing some of their numbers. They were exhausted from their time in the islands and the mechanical delay we experienced before takeoff had them rather cranky from the start. I remember the senior on the flight telling us to wake passengers up to serve them their dinner meal. That made for some interesting reactions from both sides of the service.
Douglas DC-8-62 N1804
Q: Any Memorable Actor, Celebrity, Politician, or Well-known Person On Your Flights?
A: Reserves like me were rarely senior enough to work first class where the celebrities usually sat. I was working coach on a late evening flight from Dallas to New York. We all knew that the President of Braniff was seated in the forward compartment.
Harding Lawrence was known for his meticulous observation of service standards and his reaction to this particular meal service was notably unpleasant. The nervous crew member serving the dinner meal mistakenly served the salad course before serving appetizers. His reaction sent at least one other passenger running to the coach section asking if she could sit back there and get away from the tension up front.
Q: Did You Ever Have A Life Threatening Emergency On-board?
A: On one of the training flights, for unknown reasons, the “brightly colored oxygen masks” dropped out of their overhead compartments in the entire aircraft. This caused a panic among the passengers who had either slept through the announcements about how to use the gadgets or busied themselves with other things during that time. The pilot came on the speaker and told everyone there was no real emergency, that a light had come on in the cockpit and he was sure it was a non-threatening situation. Nonetheless, he dropped our altitude to around 10,000 feet where the turbulence became greater and caused meal service to be suspended. We landed without further incident and no one was injured.
Q: What's Your Favorite Story About Flying?
A: We were about to board a flight returning from Mexico City when the flight crew passed a jewelry stall near the airport. Displayed in the window was the most gorgeous oval cut Peridot ring I’d ever seen. Even at the cheap six-dollar price I was too broke to splurge on it. The crew must have heard me say it was my birthday because they paid for the ring out of their own pockets. I wish I could remember their names and could write each of them a thank you letter these many years later. We never worked another flight together.
The Perfect Gift
Q: What's Your Favorite Passenger Story?
A: We were picking up speed down the runway, just about to take off when something in the galley came crashing down to the floor. It was the metal coffee pot that we’d forgotten to secure. One of the passengers in the aft section had not been on a flight in the previous twenty years, ever since her last flight had crash landed. Needless to say, she was beyond distraught. One of the crew made their way up the heavily inclined aisle during the fast acceleration when we were supposed to remain in our jump seats. She managed to calm down the lady’s hysterics and comfort her with a few reassuring words.
Q: What Was the Best Part of Your Training?
A: The training was top-notch but the most enjoyable part for me was the emergency training segment. We were required to deploy slides from a second story exit in a building and jump down and ride the slide to the ground. We were also given a chance to put out a controlled fire using real fire extinguishers. Also we received CPR training using plastic dummies named Resusci Anne and Resusci Andy. We had a lot of fun with the props.
Q: Would You Choose This Career Again If You Had the Chance?
A: Although much has changed in the world of airline service, I would love to go back to the way it was with Braniff where service was truly the objective. There were playing cards for the adults and plastic airline wings for the kids.We served real meals on real dishes with metal forks and knives. We offered second coffees and beverages along with Cappuccino made with real Brandy. We carried things on trays rather than use rolling carts and we had the most beautiful uniforms created by designers. Oh, if only I were young and ambitious again I would apply in a heartbeat.
It was the hardest job I ever loved.
Thanks, Pam, for your insight into the life of a flight attendant. Here's hoping to bring you more stories from 35,000 feet soon. Until then, happy flying.
© 2018 Peg Cole