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Miami flight attendant marks 50 years in the skies

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 09:38 PM
MIAMI -

This year, Barbara Beckett marked her 50th anniversary as a flight attendant, a career that once would have been ended after a decade by mandatory retirement rules.

The 70-year-old Boynton Beach resident has logged thousands of flights in her career with American Airlines, and has no firm plans to retire.

She has worked through dramatic changes in the perception of flight attendants - from the '60s era of elegance and sophistication to the '70s sex symbol and on through the '80s and '90s, when the profession shed some of its gender bias and discriminating rules.

Today, Beckett averages five trips per month for American, mostly between Miami and London and Miami and Buenos Aires.

"I love the people and the job," Beckett said. "On those airplanes, we're all family."

The best part of flying for so long has been watching aviation come into the jet age, she says. Planes now are larger and faster, and they offer passengers more in terms of onboard entertainment. Passengers sometimes have valid gripes about fees, delays and the like, but air travel also has become more affordable and accessible to the masses, she said.

"Passengers are better serviced today than years ago," Beckett said. "Sometimes they don't think so, because we run out of something and it bums them out the whole flight and we have to schmooze them."

Beckett's primary role is to ensure the safety of passengers aboard commercial aircraft. But often passengers confuse that critical duty with secondary functions such as serving in-flight meals and beverages.

Rude passengers are the worst part of the job, Beckett said, noting about a quarter of the passengers on any given flight fall into this category. Some passengers refuse to listen when asked to follow flight commands and be seated when the seat belt light is indicated. Others get intoxicated and do not respond well to being cutoff from alcohol privileges.

"I wish they would give me the dignity that I command on that flight," she said.

Increasingly, passengers are inconsiderate, Beckett said. Years ago, they followed directions and showed flight attendants respect.

Flight attendants are caregivers by nature, Beckett said. They must be prepared to handle any emergency from those of a medical nature to threats of terrorism.

"I've had passengers who were close to having a birth on the plane. I've had heart attacks, strokes, a seizure."

Despite these challenging situations and the constant threat of terrorism, the flight attendant says she has never felt fearful in the air.

"I don't worry," Beckett said. "I talk to the passengers and tell them not to worry when they approach me about that (terrorism) subject. It's all in an attitude."

Beckett's co-workers say she's a great example to others in the profession.

"You feel warm and safe when you're with Barbara," said Tim Burns, international purser for American Airlines.

Beckett is a leader, whose kindness extends to every person she comes in contact with on the job, Burns said. "Passengers leave feeling, 'I was cared for. I was noticed,' and she has that same effect for the crew."

Rolando Conde of American's Miami Flight Service crew noted, in an e-mail, Beckett "accomplishes every task with style and grace."

When Beckett began her career in 1960, flight attendants were required to be single when they were hired and were fired if they got married, exceeded weight maximums or reached age 32. But airline industry advocates for women's rights eventually protested those rules and eliminated such rules through litigation, negotiation and government intervention.

The age restriction was eliminated by 1970, as Beckett was approaching the cutoff. "I was sweating it," she said. The no-marriage rule was struck down throughout the U.S. airline industry by the 1980s. Weight restrictions were eliminated in the 1990s.

Beckett said she weighed 118 pounds for years. "If I weighed 130 pounds, they would put me on a scale every time I reported to work," she said. "They put the fear of God into you until you lost the weight."

In the late 1960s, she had to wear a girdle to work. "They wanted you to be absolutely smooth in your appearance."

It's rare to find a flight attendant that has worked for 50 years, though being a veteran has its perks: Beckett is the first flight attendant to bid for flights at American Airlines. Among all flight attendants nationwide, she ranks third in seniority.

Any destination in the world is a free plane-ride away, but Beckett says she isn't much of a tourist.

And if she retires, it'll happen on a whim. "I'm just going to wake up and say 'I've had enough.'"

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