When my name was announced for uniform pickup, I wanted to jump out my chair and race to claim it. Instead, I calmly strode down the hallowed halls of United Airlines world headquarters in Chicago and waited my turn.
The navy wool-blend skirt was a fitted pencil-style with kick pleats in the back. There was a matching leather belt with the United “tulip” logo etched into the buckle.
The crisp, white shirt had a covered placket, embroidered crest and chevron-detailed collar. A smart, matching blazer created the perfectly tailored suit with the United logo popping from each of the buttons.
A dark sweater and beautiful pleated dress-pants were included for a more casual in-flight look. The optional navy dress was double-breasted with a straight fit, burgundy piping trimming the sleeves with buttons of pewter and burgundy. The full set came with a camel London Fog trench coat and Travel Pro luggage.
I can’t lie. I loved that uniform. I would pull my hair into a French twist and apply deep red lipstick to match the dress trim. I slipped on pantyhose and heels and topped it all off with a string of pearls.
Seven weeks of intense training included jumping down an escape slide, doing evacuations in “burning” smoke-filled airplanes, giving first aid to every imaginable victim, learning how to brew coffee in the DC 10, how to work the ovens in the 737, securing the galley, checking the pressure in the oxygen bottles, putting out a fire with the onboard extinguishers, learning about the critical phases of flight, memorizing airport codes, barking evacuation commands, door operation from a Boeing to an Airbus, setting up a queen cart, studying how to use the elevator to access the lower deck galley, sitting in a raft learning survival after a ditching, practicing CPR. The day they pin your wings on is as significant as the day they call your name for a uniform.
I had earned it and I was a sucker for all of it.
Most of us proudly considered ourselves inflight safety professionals. A few, more mature, were “stewardesses,” still around from the true glory days of flight.
I once was assigned to work first class with a “stewardess.” I entered the galley to find all of my demo equipment laid out in order of use, a glass of orange juice and a napkin.
I looked at her quizzically and she smiled, “I got that all ready for you, honey, and when we finish the safety presentation, you should drink your juice, dab your lipstick and check the cabin.” Classic.
Sometimes I would do my best to be a stewardess. I would walk through the darkened cabin on the red-eye and cover up sleeping passengers. I would stop to help people in the airport.
I even changed a diaper for a disabled mother on a trans-con. But mostly, I was a flight attendant fully focused on safety and security, cognizant of the “bottom line” and trying to be efficient and aware.
Eventually I traded in my wings for a job in sales. Although it was years ago, I know flight attendants still do all of those things but with even less glamor.
When you see a flight attendant today, try to appreciate the long hours, the many days away from home, the new inherent dangers of the job and the ever-changing conditions of their work environment. I hope you never get to see the most impressive skills they learn in training.
I hope you never need to thank a flight attendant for saving your life. I hope you never need to receive first aid or CPR. And I hope you are never on board when they need to rip open an exit door and evacuate the aircraft.
As I travel to visit my sister in Atlanta, the leather seat is reclined, and my head rests against the small oval window overlooking the sea of cotton balls floating below me.
The drone of the jet engines, that sound of forced air rushing from the vents, the murmur of travelers and that ubiquitous quiet high-pitched whistle, swirl around my ears with a comforting familiarity. The bump of the beverage cart clinking down the aisle has me looking up into the eyes of a flight attendant.
Oh yeah, just in case you forgot, they serve beverages, too.