My “stewardess” career began in 1989 just as the job title was transitioning to “flight attendant,” during the good old days of air travel. You know, pre 9-11.
We had some good times. On red-eyes, after everyone went to sleep, we’d turn the meal cart over in the galley, spread a blanket on top, play poker, and smoke cigarettes. I was never a smoker, but I liked the flight attendants that smoked, they were more fun to fly with than the flight attendants who didn’t. In fact, after they banned smoking on domestic flights, I’d purposely fly international, where it was still allowed, just to hang out with those flight attendants. But I digress… let me take you back.
I was 23 years old, college was behind me and I was waitressing at Tequila Junction, a Mexican restaurant in a shopping mall called Station Square in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. One day, I saw an ad in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette announcing an Open House for potential USAir flight attendants. With my college-educated mind, it occurred to me, Wait a second, if I can waitress on the ground, I can waitress in the air! With benefits!
I attended the open house at the Sewickley Country Inn along with a couple of hundred other potential candidates. We were each given one minute to stand up and introduce ourselves, and based on that one minute, they would decide whether or not they wanted to interview you. And honestly, they only needed about ten seconds. Everyone said the same thing: “I love people, I love to travel.” After about forty of these responses, I could see the interviewers cringing. One girl actually got up and said, “I love people, I love to travel, so I’m thinking, people/travel/flight attendant! Am I right?” No. No, you’re not right at all. This is a customer service job (like waitressing!) It’s not about you, I thought.
Finally, it was my turn to speak. I stood up and in my very confident 23 year old voice said, “I don’t always like people,”—all eyes were immediately on me—“but I know how to deal with them.” Sure enough, I was called back for the interview and a physical. Then, I was selected to attend the six-week flight attendant training program at the Royce Hotel in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh.
Now look, you take two hundred, mostly twenty something’s and put them in a hotel for six weeks together, and talk about a reality show! It was basically a giant dorm with guys and girls running up and down the hallways in their underwear, gossiping, sleeping together, talking about who got kicked that day, and trying to lose weight. I remember at least two bulimic girls on my floor. You couldn’t ignore the situation. There was no privacy. We were all together, all the time.
Our days were spent in training at a local elementary school transformed into a flight attendant school, complete with a full-size mock-up airplane in the gymnasium. I had this idea that the majority of time in training would be spent on safety; you know, how to open the emergency door, how to use a fire extinguisher. Wrong.
The first thing we learned was you had to “make weight,” hence the bulimic girls. Every week, we had to stand in single file, against a wall in a gymnasium beside the tail-cone of a DC-9, as they called out our names. “Blackburn, 5’4”, can weigh 120 pounds.” Another instructor led me to the scale and I stepped on it holding my breath each week. The instructor would read my weight a loud for everyone to hear. “Blackburn weighs 119!” The first instructor confirms, “Return to class!” I always JUST made weight… It was brutal. If you didn’t “make weight” you were kicked out right there on the spot. They would put you in a van, drive you directly to the airport, and fly you back to wherever you came from. The weigh-in was very serious and completely humiliating. I burned through two roommates because they didn’t make weight. (By the way, now I weigh a healthy 125 pounds and I dare you to tell me I’m overweight!)
People got kicked out daily for many reasons: the wrong color nail polish, earrings bigger than a quarter, not wearing a beige bra...and yes, they checked! It seems they kicked people out just to intimidate those of us who remained. We started training with two hundred people and graduated with one hundred. It was like the reality show Survivor, but instead of getting kicked off the island, you got kicked out of the hotel.
There were also lots of rules. Rules about everything. Especially about our uniforms. For instance, we had to wear high-heeled navy pumps at all times. The only time we could slip on our navy flats was when we were in the air, over 10,000 feet and serving food or beverages. That was also when you had to wear your “serving garment” or apron. But you could never wear your serving garment on take off or landing, because then you needed to be wearing your double-breasted blazer. Pay attention!
To illustrate the importance of wearing your blazer and not your serving garment on takeoff and landing, during “Accident Week,” which was like “Shark Week” but with airplane crashes, we were watching the Air Florida Flight 90 crash. On January 13th, 1982 a Boeing 737 crashed on takeoff, into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington DC, crushing seven occupied cars. Then, it fell off the bridge and plunged through the ice into the Potomac River, sinking. It was a surreal scene with only the tail of the airplane visible and ice chunks all around.
People stood along the banks of the river, helpless to save the passengers who were clawing to get out of the freezing cold water. Only five people survived the crash including a flight attendant who we watched being pulled up and out of the river, by a helicopter. The flight attendant was clutching a rope, spinning in the air, and hanging on for dear life. And she was wearing...her serving garment! The instructor stopped the VHS tape, glared at us, and with a completely serious tone said, “You see? You see that? Is that what you want? Do you want to be on national television in your serving garment?”
Let me just tell you just how useless all these flight attendant rules turned out to be. About six months later, I was just off probation and flying from JFK to West Palm Beach. The flight was packed and I was working first class, which meant I was the lead flight attendant that day. All of a sudden, a woman came up from coach, between the curtains, and whispered to me, “Excuse me, stewardess. I just want to inform you that Mr. Klein in 5C just passed away.” I’m sorry what? I say. She replies “I’m his nurse. He’s dead.” Then she turns around, walked back through the curtains, and sat down next to him. I did not remember this in flight attendant training!
So I got out the flight attendant manual and sure enough, there’s a rule: “If a passenger dies on your flight, do not be alarmed and do not alert other passengers. Place an oxygen mask over their nose and mouth, adjust the elastic band around their head, and act normally. You may also want to put a blanket in their lap.”
So what did I do? I got an oxygen bottle and a blanket and I head back through the curtains and into coach. And then I saw the guy. He was sitting in the window seat and appeared to be about one hundred or one hundred and twenty years old and he was dead, dead, dead, dead, dead. And so I began (pretending to act normally) “Hey Mr. Klein, I hear you’re not feeling well?” I turn the little air thing on above his head. “How about a little extra oxygen?” The nurse helps me put the elastic band around his dead head. “What’s that? You’re a little cold? Well, here’s a blanket.”
Then, I march back through the curtains to first class and use my cockpit key to get in to the cockpit. I step inside and tell the pilots, who don’t seem the least bit phased. They say they’ll alert the ground, and with that, the flight continues. There really was not a lot of fanfare about it.
Right before we land, I take off my serving garment, put on my double- breasted blazer, change back into my navy pumps, and check on Mr. Klein one more time. Yep, still dead.
Once we’re on the ground, I assume we’ll let all the passengers off first and then get the dead guy off. But no, no, no, the rules say the dead guy comes off first. We taxi to the gate, I open the door. They pull out the jet way and two paramedics rush in with a straight-back chair and wheel it back to 5C. The charade continues. “Hey Mr. Klein how’s it going here?” they say. “Hear you’re not feeling well. Let’s just put you in this straight-back chair. We’ll put your arms over your chest now.” They strap his arms around his chest, tighten the belts, and wheel him off the plane like he’s on a dolly, which I guess he is.
What do I do? Well, I just go by the rules, straightening my double- breasted blazer, I say, “Bye-bye Mr. Klein! I hope you feel better! Thanks for flying with us! See you next time!”