Flight attendant grounds herself after 54 years with American Airlines
By TERRY MAXON
When Carole DiSalvo began working as an American Airlines Inc. stewardess, she thought she might stay a couple of years. Maybe that long.
“I was 20 when I went with American,” DiSalvo recalled. “And two years was truly the maximum. You couldn’t be married. Back then, people were getting married a lot younger than they are now. So two years was truly about the maximum that you would expect to fly. Never would you expect to go five years or 10 years.”
More than 54 years later, DiSalvo, 75, has finally grounded herself.
She worked her last assignments in mid-January, on a flight from Chicago to Shanghai, and then a flight back to Chicago. On Thursday, she ended a career that touched seven decades, 11 U.S. presidential administrations, numerous management changes, industry deregulation and the economic turbulence that has shaken the industry.
She arrived at American a few months before its first jet, the Boeing 707, began service. She began work more than two years before American’s current chairman and chief executive, Tom Horton, was born.
She retires as American’s most senior flight attendant on active duty. A woman hired a month before her in 1958 retired in December but had been on medical leave for some time and had not been flying.
DiSalvo’s last official duties were Monday, when she spoke to American’s first class of new-hire flight attendants in 12 years, a group that gave her a standing ovation after her presentation. The following day, she talked to The Dallas Morning News about her career.
“As a matter of fact, after today, it’s going to be all over — and it’s going to be one of the saddest days of my life,” she said as the interview neared its end, her voice cracking. But with a smile, she quickly instructed herself, “Stop it.”
DiSalvo was working as a secretary at Continental Can Co. in 1958 when her boss suggested that she might like to work as an airline stewardess.
The idea appealed to her; she didn’t like the daily commute to her downtown Chicago job, nor did she see herself as a 9-to-5 person. Still, she wonders whether her boss was subtly telling her to go get another job.
Regardless, with her mother and sister along for moral support, she visited Trans World Airlines Inc., which was hiring.
“It was jammed with people. It was a pretty intensive interview,” DiSalvo said. “But then they said, ‘You know, we like you, but come back when your nails are longer.’”
She left the interview and told her mom that she wanted to go by American Airlines’ offices at Chicago’s Midway Airport. DiSalvo walked into a hangar and learned that a personnel person was on site.
The man met with her, then said, “I’ll be right back,” DiSalvo remembered. “He came back and he had the overseas cap in his hand. He put it on my head, and he said, ‘You’ll do just fine. You’ll hear from us.’”
A few weeks later, she got a call from American telling her she was hired. She began training Sept. 13, 1958, at American’s new training center in Fort Worth, one of 32 new stewardesses in that class.
Upon graduation, most new flight attendants were assigned to New York and Los Angeles. However, it needed Spanish-speaking flight attendants based in Chicago and Dallas, and DiSalvo really wanted to be in Chicago to be near her boyfriend.
She acknowledges today that she didn’t know Spanish. But with help from a roommate from El Paso, she learned the Spanish public announcements she needed to know and got her Chicago assignment.
But what about the guy? “That boyfriend lasted about a week after I got to Chicago,” DiSalvo said.
She moved to Los Angeles in 1960 and returned to Chicago in 1964 after her father suffered a major stroke. She was based there the rest of her career.
The old rules
When she joined American, the rules for flight attendants were spelled out at the outset: Nobody could work as a flight attendant after age 32. Nobody could be married and fly. Nobody could have children and fly.
One by one, those rules changed, allowing DiSalvo to continue flying after she turned 32 in 1969 and after she got married in 1971. Over time, many of the colleagues she began flying with decided to leave. But not her, even though she never told herself that she would stay so long.
“It’s amazing with this job how time just flies by. You have a different schedule each month. One month goes into the next month. I never even thought about it,” she said.
Even after she and her husband, Joe, a patent attorney, adopted the first of two children more than 27 years ago, DiSalvo decided to keep flying, convinced she could handle children and a career.
“In all sincerity, I never sat and thought, ‘Ah, jeez, when am I going to quit this?’ A couple of times when you have a rough trip or something, you’d think about it. But time flew by.”
In 2003, as American was struggling financially, DiSalvo did decide to retire — a decision that lasted an hour and 45 minutes.
A number of friends had decided to take American’s incentive payments to retire, and they encouraged her to do so as well. Finally, she called her supervisor’s office and asked that her resignation papers go in before the 5 p.m. deadline.
But she felt so bad about the decision that she called back a few minutes after the deadline to see if she could change her mind. The secretary hadn’t faxed DiSalvo’s resignation to the airline’s Fort Worth headquarters yet, and tore it up.
Some memories remain somber. On May 25, 1979, an American flight to Los Angeles crashed after takeoff from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, killing all aboard, including the Los Angeles-based crew of flight attendants. “I remember the day as though it were yesterday. It was very, very tragic.”
She also recalls the March 1, 1962, crash of American Airlines Flight 1 as it departed New York International Airport, popularly known then as Idlewild and now as John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“I was at the airport in Los Angeles the day before the flight, and I ran into a friend of mine. I asked her where she was going. She said she was going to New York,” DiSalvo said.
When the return flight the next day crashed, DiSalvo knew it was the one her friend was staffing and mourned for her lost friend. Then a week later, DiSalvo ran into her again at the Los Angeles operations offices.
“You talk about really, really falling apart,” DiSalvo said. “She had been removed from the flight at the last minute. We just clung to each other for the longest time.”
DiSalvo’s worst day was Sept. 11, 2001, when hijackers took over four flights, two of them operated by American, and crashed them.
“I thought I was doing OK. But then, about two weeks after that, I would just wake up and have anxiety attacks and have to get up out of bed and run downstairs. It was cold outside, and I would run up and down the street. I didn’t know what was wrong,” she said.
Eventually, her doctor diagnosed her as suffering from depression.
Lots of changes
As airline veterans do, DiSalvo has noted changes in the industry and its customers since she began working. The suits and ties for male travelers and the dresses for women have been replaced by much more casual dress. Also, everyone flies today, rather than mostly businessmen, as it was when she started.
The jet age at American began soon after DiSalvo started working there, with American’s first Boeing 707 making its maiden voyage with passengers in January 1959. That aircraft model, “very homey,” remains DiSalvo’s favorite of the many she’s worked on.
“The Boeing 747 was exciting because of the upper deck and the staircase and we had three different galleys. But from a flight attendant viewpoint, it was very impersonal. Half the time, you never saw the other flight attendants in the middle and in the back,” she said.
The 747, out of American’s fleet since 1983 except for a pair kept until 1992, had a spiral staircase leading to its upper deck, DiSalvo recalled.
“We would put liquor out, actual fifths of liquor, and passengers would help themselves. We’d put out cheese and crackers. Very, very elegant. And sometimes, some of those passengers had difficulties coming down that staircase,” she said.
On Monday, when the new flight attendants asked her to name the celebrities she had served, she paused to think.
“Marlon Brando — very nice. Adlai Stevenson.” Richard Nixon saw her in an airport and asked her if she had worked his flight; she said no. “He came over and he kissed my hand.”
Her favorite celebrity, though, was Neil Diamond. Other passengers had gotten off the airplane while he remained in his first-class seat for the next leg of the flight.
DiSalvo, who had worked the coach section, stayed on board while the plane was on the ground. “I saw him and started to sing ‘Sweet Caroline.’” Diamond gestured for her to stop. And then, she smiled, “he sang ‘Sweet Caroline.’”
If she were 20½ years old today, DiSalvo said, she would “absolutely, without hesitation” start a career as a flight attendant. So why retire? Part of the reason is that American offered veteran flight attendants a $40,000 payment to leave, but that probably moved up her departure by only a few months, she said.
“There are a lot of changes going on with the airline, for one thing. Again, I don’t want to complain, but I have those little aches and pains. And like my dear friend said, ‘Carole, do you really want them to have to carry you off the airplane?’” she said.
“I think 54 years is long enough. Don’t you think?”