The Washington Post

First Person: Nadine DuVal, 44, of Aldie. Flight attendant, United Airlines

(Photograph by Jonathan Timmes)

I was 26, working in an office and realized that going to the same place every day was not for me. I wanted to do something where I was helping people. I’m a realist, so I was clear that I was never going to be Mother Teresa. But I wanted something where I could help people every single day, even if it was in very small ways. Pre-9/11, seeing people meeting their families at the gate — that was confirmation for me, especially if I’d had a chance to talk to the person: a grandmother
meeting her grandson for the first time, a soldier coming home to see his girlfriend after many months. I was helping, in some way, make that happen.

Everybody thinks we just serve food and soda. That piece of the job is very, very easy. The planning is incredible. The safety training is intense. There’s a lot of forethought, logistics, anticipating needs: Caring for 49 people in business class in 90 minutes takes a fine-tuned machine. I had a roommate who was a waitress; she just assumed we had the same job. Once, she left a candle burning, and I used a fire extinguisher to put it out because I’d been trained to do that. If something goes bad at her job, she calls the cops. If something happens up in the air, it’s up to us.

I’m single, no kids. I’ve flown every Christmas since 1995, just because I can. If I fly, someone else can be with their kids. Do I regret it? Well, I hear about it from my family. Christmas in an airport can be depressing, but it’s the little things that make a difference. It’s all about your perspective. If you think, I’m just pouring Diet Cokes to strangers on Christmas, that’s no good. If you think you’re helping a co-worker be with her kids, that changes everything.

We’re not robots. It’s hard to put on a smile and just pretend everything is great when it isn’t. I’ve seen co-workers lose a family member the day before a trip and just pull it together. We have lives beyond the aircraft. It can be hard, especially if it’s a long day. At the end of a 14-hour flight, it’s like, “It was really nice helping you, but I’m ready for you to get off the plane.” Those last 15 minutes can be the longest 15 minutes of your life. You can’t wait to get those pantyhose off, turn off the flight attendant’s voice and get something to eat without someone saying, “Excuse me.”

Sometimes I go all day and never hear a “please” or a “thank you.” When you take your headphones off, when you look me in the eye, when you say thank you, it’s huge. Huge! It makes us feel like you actually see us — as fellow humans — and realize how amazing what it is we’re sharing. We’re up here together at 30,000 feet, enjoying the miracle of modern flight.

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