ABOARD US AIRWAYS FLIGHT 2102 — Bette Burke-Nash wakes up at 2 a.m., peers into a mirror, and begins to paint what she calls the blank canvas of her face. She applies mascara and fresco-colored makeup and layers of cream to help cover up wrinkles 78 years in the making.
Several hours later, strolling down the terminal at Washington’s Reagan National Airport in her crisp US Airways uniform, she is glamorous.
Her hair is tightly in a twist. When she smiles, her whole face perks up. And as 71 bleary-eyed passengers stroll aboard the flight to Boston at 6 a.m., she uses her smile and wide blue eyes to make contact with everyone.
“I know who you’re rooting for there,” she tells the young man in a New York Jets hooded sweatshirt. “Look at your boots!” she exclaims to the man wearing yellow wading boots (insisting he needed them for his trip to icy New Hampshire).
The lines are delivered with exuberance, as though she’s taking her first flight.
It’s far from her first. Bette has been a flight attendant for 57 years, which she believes makes her the nation’s longest-serving. She’s been a flight attendant 10 years longer than Ted Kennedy was a US senator, four years longer than President Obama has been alive.
In an industry that has seen cutbacks and consolidations, she is a throwback. The woman old enough to be some passengers’ grandmother is the one hanging their suit jackets and stretching on her tip-toes to rearrange their luggage in the overhead bins.
She began when airlines recruited women who were young and trim and intended to please the eye of the mostly male business travel army. But she has outlasted the glamour-conscious realm she fell for initially, and industry and society outgrew it as well.
Through her eyes, one can see not only a transformation of the airline industry but the changes in the country. Also, the resilience of a woman determined to continue at work — and to make things a little better for people, even on their worst days.
“I hope I give a [care] about life as much as she does when I’m her age,” says John Saber, a 59-year-old frequent flier from Kensington, Md. “The more you see people like that, the more it takes the edge off the [jerks] you see every day.”
“Pause for a moment to give attention to the flight attendants,” Bette says over the intercom as the plane backs up from Gate 45 and the sun begins to rise over Washington.
No one does.
From the moment she took her first flight when she was 16, Bette always wanted to be a flight attendant. Everyone seemed to pay attention to them.
“In a way at that time, it was like you were on the stage to a degree,” she says. “It just looked so elegant. And romantic. It was the romance of the skies. You could take off and be in another world almost.”
She went to Sacred Heart College in North Carolina and worked as a legal secretary, but she was just biding her time until she could get a job as a stewardess. She applied for a job at Eastern Airlines and took the bus from Atlantic City to New York’s Rockefeller Center for an interview, wearing a dress borrowed from her sister.
She was hired on Nov. 4, 1957, and quickly went on airline-mandated trips to charm school (to learn how to sit and how to put on a jacket), and the beauty parlor (for a haircut).
On the New York-to-Washington shuttle that she frequently worked,tickets were $12, reservations weren’t required, and the airlines guaranteed any passenger a seat, even if it meant using another airplane.
Passengers dressed like they were heading somewhere special because, in a way, they were. Bette remembers serving entire airplanes dedicated to first-class service. The next plane would be all coach.
She would offer coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and bouillon. There were china plates, crystal glasses, and Coffeepotsmade of silver. On some flights, she carved roast beef and served champagne. She wore white gloves, a blue pillbox hat, and a fur coat. In the 1970s, she wore go-go boots, hot pants, and a tight white shirt. Men ogled her as she retrieved their things from overhead.
“Oh my God, I don’t know why I ever did it!” Bette laughs.
In those days, flight attendants couldn’t get married or have children. They faced weight and height restrictions and mandatory retirement at 32 until the rules gradually changed with the times.
“Please look at the flight-safety information.”
The transitions in the industry — and the country — are evident in Bette’s recollections. She remembers when one of the first black flight attendants was hired, and when the first woman pilot joined her airline. Once, flight attendants passed out cigarettes and matches after dinner; now smoking on a plane is a federal offense.
She’s seen the shift from where people are afraid to fly to where they’re afraid of an unattended bag.
She’ll never forget seeing smoke at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, a day she was supposed to fly out of Washington, or the time when the back door came ajar several inches, leaving the sky visible, before the plane landed.
These days, the outfits are less flashy than they used to be, and the food is less elaborate (when US Airways cut back on popular fig bars in first class, Bette went and bought some at Costco; the airline has since brought them back). But Bette still finds enough elegance to offer a reminder of how things used to be — and also what’s better. Technology makes things easier, and there’s far more emphasis on safety.
Every year, Bette has to pass an annual test that requires her to do things such as knock a heavy window out or throw open a large door. If there’s an emergency, the passengers are Bette’s responsibility, with dozens of souls in her hands.
“You worry,” she says of the test. “You lose sleep. Am I going to pass?”
“Ladies and gentlemen, in preparation for landing, please close your tray table and put away carry-on items.”
As the plane begins its approach into Boston, the route Bette has flown for the past seven years, Bette begins retrieving jackets for her first-class brood. There’s the white puffy coat, the suit jacket, the black overcoat.
After the plane makes it to the gate, Bette stands at attention at the front, saying farewell to passengers.
She demurs when asked how long she’ll keep doing her job, saying she hopes she can make it at least three more years for her Diamond Jubilee. There’s nothing she’d rather do.
“This just keeps me going,” she added later. “I don’t have time to really stop and think, you know, what my age is. So here I am.”
“Thank you for flying with us. And have a wonderful day.”
After cleaning the plane, eating an orange, and returning on a flight to Washington, Bette’s shift is done. But in some ways, her day is just beginning.
She’s an attendant at work but also at home.
Bette often works weekday mornings so she can care for her 40-year-old son, Christian, who has Down syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity. One recent afternoon, that meant taking him to see Santa Claus near their home in Manassas, Va.
After all of these years, Bette has learned something. The passengers might not listen to everything she says at 30,000 feet — and her son might not listen to everything she says on the ground.
But Bette, as she approaches her birthday on New Year’s Eve, says she has found something that seems universal and true.
“People want a little love. And I don’t mean a lot of hugging and everything, even though we might do that. But this is the big thing: People need attention. You can’t buy love. You can’t buy attention. But people need this.”
“And it’s for free,” Bette says. “You can give this to people for free.”
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Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.