Once, when I was a kid, I was waiting for my grandmother to arrive at New Orleans airport when an airline crew sailed by pulling suitcases on wheels, a new invention back in the late 1980s. There was something exquisite about the way they confidently walked in their starched navy uniforms. The crew’s smiles and casual conversation about New York and Paris especially caught my attention. As the group drifted out of sight, I knew at that moment that I wanted to be part of their world. And one day, I would be – as a flight attendant.
The signs that I was destined to fly were always there. My mother once asked me what item from nature I would be if I could. Without hesitation, I replied, “A cloud, because they are always moving and never stay the same.” My choice of heroines also reflected my future calling. Wonder Woman was an obvious favourite – surely, I thought, there’s nothing better than flying and having super powers.
There’s nothing better than flying and having super powers
Fast-forward a dozen years, and there I was looking down from a Boeing 727. The pinned airline wings I wore over my heart were a proud symbol of my successful flight attendant training as well as my new employment with a charter airline that flew vacationers to exotic beach destinations and sports teams to their next game. My world had opened up, and for the first time in my life, I needed a passport for my adventures.
On one of my first flights, our plane had moved a little too close to Cuba’s airspace and we were being asked to reroute. As we started our detour, the captain’s voice boomed over the cabin speaker calling out the then off-limits country for US travellers in the distance. Below us were a handful of smaller islands surrounded by turquoise water, a sight my 22-year-old eyes had never beheld.
I was home.
While my airline employment changed over the years, the exhilaration of observing the world from above never ceased. Sometimes, the views were iconic, such as when passing over Missouri’s St Louis Gateway Arch, getting a bird’s-eye view of the Hoover Dam on the border of Arizona and Nevada and seeing the aurora borealis as we approached the Canadian city of Calgary. Just a few years ago, I worked an evening flight into Buffalo, New York, that soared over Niagara Falls. Seeing the dazzling, gushing waterfalls from such a unique perspective reminded me how lucky I was to have a window on the world.
Other times, the views were more unexpected. Once I saw a boy, about age nine, racing our plane on his rusty blue bike along the chain-link fence that lined a small Dominican airport runway. Eventually we outflew him, and he waved goodbye as we lifted off the ground. Another time I experienced a much more sombre sight, when flying over Manhattan just two weeks after the fateful 9/11 attacks. The skyline wasn’t recognisable at first glance and the city was still smouldering. That time, instead of excitement, a quiet reflection set in.
While I no longer work as a flight attendant, I still recall some of the most powerful and memorable moments I’ve had – most of which came from interactions inside the cabin.
“This is for you,” said the lady in 15F. Her mascara was smudged and her eyes looked weary. In my hand she placed a perfectly ripe peach. With her well-manicured hands, she held the crinkling paper bag filled with fruit ever so gently, yet securely – much like a mother would hold an infant. “It’s from my son’s tree. He planted it when he was little.”
Flight attendants learn quickly to tap into passengers’ moods, often observing specific people’s behaviour throughout the flight without them even knowing. I knew in my heart, upon this woman’s initial greeting, that her journey was a sad one, so I checked on her regularly and offered her tissues without her asking. My hunch was confirmed when I later overheard her tell a seatmate that her son had unexpectedly passed away.
Flight attendants learn quickly to tap into passengers’ moods
The chance to make a difference comes often when you see hundreds of faces every day. Singing Happy Birthday to unsuspecting passengers, playing tic-tac-toe with bored children and listening to lonely travellers talk about the “good old days” are just a few of the ways I’ve tried to bring joy to flying.
One day, my co-workers decided to play a joke on me by telling the cabin that I had been nominated Flight Attendant of the Month and that I was out on parole for good behaviour from a women’s detention centre. In the spirit of good fun, I played along, but one couple revealed to me later that I had inspired them and given them hope: their daughter had ended up in trouble and was serving time.
Most other times, I tried to help passengers with their more basic needs, such as offering to watch babies while the mother used the lavatory, or sharing my lunch with passengers who forgot to pack snacks for their long day of flying. Responding to travellers’ needs comes naturally to me, but as an extrovert, my favourite thing to do is point out landmarks, which often leads to interesting conversations.
On a return flight to my current hometown airport, Minneapolis-St Paul International, I flew as a passenger and was seated next to a teenage boy. We never exchanged more than a hello, as he slept most of the flight, but he awoke during our descent and asked about the local weather.
“Do you visit Minnesota often?” I asked.
“No, this is my first time,” he said. “My family is going to Mall of America.”
I glanced outside and grinned. “Well, there it is now.” He stretched over me to see the sprawling oversized shopping mall – the largest in the US – on our left.
“That’s it?” he asked exuberantly.
I nodded yes.
He let out an unexpected “Yahooooo!” and said, “Wow! I’ve wanted to see the Mall of America since I was a little kid and now I’m seeing it from the sky. This is my dream come true!”
He was beaming. “Wait, how did you know it was the mall? There wasn’t a sign,” he said as our wheels touched down.
I raised my eyebrows and whispered, “Don’t tell anyone, but I have super powers.”