American Airlines Flight 2160 from Boston has just arrived in Washington, DC, and Bette Nash, 81, helps the passengers disembark. They embrace her, take photos, and express their thanks. It’s always like this. After six decades crossing the skies as a flight attendant, Nash still has impeccable style, incredible energy and a constant smile. She has lost only one thing: her anonymity.
Kendra Taylor, a passenger, beams after taking a selfie with the octogenarian, whom she had hoped to meet. “When I saw her I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I just saw her on TV last week!” In a dark suit accented by a colored scarf, with her hair in a bun, Nash lends herself to accolades and plays with the compliments. She is the undisputed star of the Airbus jet, rather than the captain, Mike Margiotta, who emerges from the flight deck.
“Very professional,” he says of his model hostess. “She’s got that old-school way of doing things.” In the United States, pilots must retire at 65 but there is no such restriction on commercial flight attendants, of whom Bette Nash is probably the world’s most senior. See her gliding through the terminal concourse, pulling her suitcase, and it’s hard not to be taken by the admiring words one hears about her. “I start my day at 2:10 in the morning. I have two alarm clocks and when they go off I don’t lie there, I get up,” Nash says. At her home in Virginia, bordering Washington, Nash prepares food for her only son, who is disabled, and who will be waiting for her return to solid ground.
From furs, to flip-flops
Primped, and fueled by “a couple of eggs,” she arrives before sunrise at Ronald Reagan National Airport. Nash prefers the Washington-Boston-Washington route, on which she gets priority because of her incomparable seniority. She was 21 years young and Dwight Eisenhower was president when Eastern Air Lines recruited her as a “stewardess,” a word which-like Eastern itself-has disappeared from use.
At that time, travel by air was the preserve of a certain elite. “There were a lot of men because they were doing business, and women came on with their fur coats, and their finery and their hats and everything. You didn’t have… the flip-flops and the sneakers and things you do today,” Nash says. Her own uniforms ranged, through the years, from conservative, to elegant, and “wild.”
“When (president) John Kennedy came into office and everything, things started opening up, so we wore crazy uniforms. We even had hot pants for a brief period, and these boots,” she remembers. In those earlier times, which seem almost prehistoric, there were no plastic meal trays. Hostesses cooked lobster and duck a l’orange equally well, and carved the meat. In first class, passengers dined with silverware and porcelain. “We had five carts: we’d start with a beverage cart, then we’d have an hors d’oeuvre cart, then we’d have the entrees cart.” Desserts followed, and then finally came “a cordial cart.” There was no mixing of classes. Flights were either all first class or “tourist” class.
A rare honor
In the less-opulent class, “we sold sandwiches and milk. Sandwiches were 50 cents and milk was 15 cents,” Nash says. “We just had coffee, tea, hot chocolate and bouillon.” Strikes, mergers, buyouts, Nash has gone through all the somersaults of the US aviation industry. She even worked for Trump Shuttle, an airline briefly owned by current President Donald Trump in the early 90s.
During one unforgettable approach to Washington, her plane was hit by turbulence so violent that part of a toilet separated, and it seemed as though a wing hit the ground. “It was just terrible,” Nash said, recalling lightning that “kept on coming in and I think we even flew over the White House that night, which was really illegal.” The plane had to return to New York. Ten years ago, for her 50th anniversary on the job, Nash’s plane was welcomed on the tarmac by sprays of water from fire engines-an honor normally reserved for veteran pilots or the baptism of a new plane. Who imagined that Nash would still be there ? “I am not going to work until I am 90,” she says, before adding on the subject of retirement: “I don’t want to think about it!” Bette Nash will celebrate her 82nd birthday on December 31. – AFP