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Seasoned Traveler: The March Q&A

A flight attendant with 31 years under her wings talks about her favorite airports, how to pack, and meeting O.J. Simpson.

Between stuffing your belongings into a carry-on bag, waiting through delays, and getting ignored in the back of coach, airline travel comes with its share of turbulence. We asked a Washington-based flight attendant—who recently retired after 31 years and prefers to remain anonymous—to share her insider’s perspective, flying tips, and memorable stories.

When passengers have the option of reserving their seats on a plane, where should they sit?
“From a service point of view, you’re obviously going to get more attention in first class than coach. Since food-and-drink service starts in the front of the cabin and works back, those sitting toward the front of coach tend to get more attention, while those in the back might get overlooked.”

How do flight attendants manage to pack all of their stuff into a small carryon bag?
“Believe it or not, when we have layovers we’re generally not going out and doing fancy things, so we don’t need a lot of stuff. I pack my shoes first, putting them toward the back and bottom of my luggage so that, weight-wise, it’s easier to carry. Try rolling your clothes instead of folding them flat; it saves room. Also, those space bags [vacuum-sealed bags that compress bulky items] are nice; they’re also good if you have any liquids you want to avoid spilling on other items.”

Do you have any tips to avoid long lines while checking in?
“If possible, try to fly at off-peak hours. Many large airports have what’s called ‘bank time,’ when domestic flights come in to connect to international flights. This generally lasts from about 2:30 to 5:30 pm and is when the airport is the most crowded.”

You operated primarily out of Washington Dulles Airport. Where would you recommend that passengers go to pass the time at that airport?

“The B terminal is far nicer than any other terminal, and anyone with a ticket can go over there. It has the nicest restaurants and shops.”

How has the fear of terrorism changed life for flight attendants?
“My job ended up becoming much more serious toward the end, with more emphasis on safety, security, and medical emergencies. In the beginning, it was more accommodation. Yet passengers are much more alert and not as nervous as you might think.”

What’s the best way to get an upgrade to first class?
“I don’t know that you can these days. When I first started flying, if you were in the military, we were very likely to move you up if there was room in first class. However, airlines are pretty strict these days.”

What are some of your favorite airports?
“Larger airports are always nicer simply because there’s more to do. I’d say my two favorites are Schiphol in Amsterdam and Keflavik in Reykjavík, Iceland, because both have really nice duty-free shopping, they’re spacious with lots of things to do if you get stuck there, and the cities are also charming with wonderful people.”

Did you ever have any particularly memorable experiences on an airplane?
“There was this old, fragile guy who I felt bad for so I started talking to him. He ended up asking me to marry him on the plane. I politely declined. I was about 30 years old at the time. He was probably 80.”

Have you ever met anyone famous?
“I was flying a charter with the Buffalo Bills in the ’70s and O.J. Simpson was on board. We lost our hydrolic fluid, almost crashed, and had to make an emergency landing. Of all those athletes on board, Simpson was probably one of the nicest. When we were in trouble, he let us take charge.

“I also had a three-day charter with Jimmy Carter when he was campaigning for President. He was known for being a ‘man of the people,’ so when he’d come off the plane, he’d carry his suit instead of having his minions carry it for him. But as soon as that door closed, his minions would grab it and hang it up for him.

“I’ve also flown with Ted Kennedy, Sam Donaldson, and Henry Kissinger—all of whom were very pleasant. The worst was Zsa Zsa Gabor. She had just come back from Australia and had this dingo puppy that she let run all over the plane. She was a pain in the neck.”

How strict was the airline about what you wore?
“There were times when you might get your heels measured. If your shoes were too low, they’d tell us we had ‘toe cleavage.’ It was like random drug testing.

“They used to be very strict about weight. When I started, you had to maintain a certain weight based on your height and had to weigh in every six months. They got rid of this only in the ’90s. I missed the worst of this, though. Some of the older flight attendants talked about how they used to have to wear a girdle.”

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