Ursula Conway, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. An ‘unaccompanied minor’ passenger is delivered safely.

Ursula Conway, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. An ‘unaccompanied minor’ passenger is delivered safely.

ADVENTURES: Airline passengers should be treated ‘like guests in your own home’

Columnist Ursula Maxwell-Lewis reflects on her days as an airline hostess in the 1960s in response to the recent United Airlines incident.

Watching in horror as a passenger was dragged off United Airlines, I reflected on my own decades of varied airline experiences from both staff and passenger points of view. But first, let me say the treatment of Dr. Dao was utterly inexcusable. Disgraceful at every level.

I began my working life as a South African newspaper reporter, but the lure of the high flying life with Central African Airways was too much to resist. Combine my passions for writing and travel and get paid to do it? No contest! Goodbye 1960s Durban. Hello Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia.

Armed with a few pounds, no accommodation, very little knowledge of central Africa, and an airline contract, I climbed aboard the CAA Viscount parked in the coastal summer heat . . . and suddenly realized I might have bitten off more than I could chew.

Waving me farewell from Louis Botha Airport (since replaced by King Shaka International Airport), my worried mother was sure of it.

After eight weeks of St John’s Ambulance First Aid exams, cabin safety and evacuation drills, legal ‘flight box’ documents, catering, protocols for assorted dignitaries, general passengers service, and various other formalities, eight girls in blue linen uniforms, black high heels, jaunty forage caps, voluminous navy leather handbags, and white gloves lined up at headquarters to face Chief Hostess Molly Harling, and CAA CEO Sir Max Stuart-Shaw and receive their wings.

“Young ladies, I expect you to treat every one of our passengers as if they were honoured guests in your own living room,” commanded the portly, steely-eyed CEO. With that, he turned on his heel and departed.

We were also instructed hat and gloves were mandatory at all times when not in the cabin. “You are the face of the airline,” warned the unbending Miss. Harling – and she meant it. She also reminded us that only one ring, small earrings, and a watch were permitted to be worn when in uniform.

Ursula Conway, Central African Airways. Contributed

Before receiving our wings, my colleagues and I were, naturally, required to sign an employment contract. It stated that Air Hostesses had to be 21 years of age to fly, be between 5’3” and 5’7”, weigh no more than 110lbs and retire when we turned 32 – or when we married. Pregnancy? Perish the thought! Who would dare? Unthinkable.

Our lone long-haul aircraft (during my years) was a DC6, a prop aircraft on lease from Alitalia domestic service.

Occasionally the aircraft developed a problem requiring unscheduled stops en route – such as in Addis Ababa. The air-conditioning was notoriously temperamental. That didn’t stop us from plying regular charters, with interim refuelling stops at Entebbe in Uganda, to London (Heathrow), Prestwick, Malta, Mauritius, and other destinations. The perks: we were being paid to travel, we received accommodation and a generous per diem in whichever destination we found ourselves in, and our ‘stopovers’ were never less than seven days sometimes 10.

I don’t envy 21st century quick turnarounds, but I did smile at my recollections while watching the Air Canada Dreamliner cabin crew working that spacious galley between Delhi and Toronto last year. Changed days, indeed.

During flight the galley had to be rearranged to accommodate the catering oven boxes. Cabin crew took one break each during these flights . . . in the hold in the rear of the fuselage where a mattress was thoughtfully provided for our comfort. A curtain just beyond the two washrooms provided a modicum of privacy.

Our other aircraft were Viscounts, DC3’s (Douglas Dakota aka the Dak, or Wonderful Gooney Bird) and Beavers.

On four, or three-day Dak trips we saw much of Africa not easily accessible today. From infants to heads of state, you wouldn’t believe what a social ‘leveller’ a sick bag can be while bouncing around African skies in the heat unpressurized at 10,000 feet.  I wouldn’t trade it all for anything.

Unexpectedly, I found myself working a summer (which translated into three years) with Air Canada Passenger Relations at London’s Heathrow. At the time we were non-union, the best paid airline in Terminal 3, and certainly well treated by both the company, and our passengers. Once during a lengthy Pan Am strike we even took a couple of stranded, broke, passengers home overnight (five of us shared a Hammersmith Victorian ‘row house’) and ferried them back to the airport in time to stand-by the following morning. All part of the service, of course. Picture that these days!

My Air Canada transfer to Place Ville Marie Customer Relations in Montreal reminds me of one complaint letter to the president which landed on my desk. It was the closest I ever came to staff rudeness to a passenger, and it made me chuckle aloud before I finished reading it. I could picture the scene.

Thick fog had blanked the city some days before. Air traffic was halted until further notice.

The letter described demanding that an airport passenger agent “Do something. Phone someone!”

The agent, clearly at the end of his tether and leaning on the counter clutching a yellow internal phone, glowered at the frustrated passenger, and gritted, “What do you think I have in my ear? A banana?”

The passenger felt there a better way handle that. Needless to say, I, on behalf of the president, apologized.

Now, back to over-booking. It’s always been a fact of airline travel. Clearly, however, our increasingly frustrated society, and the burgeoning travel population, just don’t handle it well and will no longer put up with it.

While, from experience, I understand the principal behind why airlines overbook, I fear that the flood gates are now open for denied boarding compensation demands. Where that will lead, I don’t know, but if nothing else it sheds light on the practice, but more importantly the reminder that all passengers deserve to be treated “like guests in your own home.” Hopefully, civility is not dead, just somewhat frustrated, and in need of a refresher.

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a retired editor with a passion for history, travel – and aviation. Your travel comments, or tips, are welcome at utravel@shaw.ca


Cloverdale Reporter

Just Posted

Most Read