Call me old-fashioned, but I have always delighted in the idea of the glamorous and accomplished elegance of the original air stewardesses. It was a time when air travel was still something special and the experience was a little bit magic (for some of us it still remains so). Stewardesses were part of that enchantment, and not just because they were some of the most pioneering career women.
Betty Riegel was one of those young women who made their way to the skies, flying for America’s most renowned airline, Pan Am. In her biography Up in the Air, she takes readers on her stewarding journey through the golden age of sixties air travel.
Before Pan Am, Betty flew for Silver City, flying across the English Channel and back up to six times a day – and initially battling horrendous airsickness. At 22, she decided to try out for Pan Am, and became one of only 17 British girls (out of thousands) selected to fly for the airline. Before long, Betty was flying around the globe, working alongside her “Pan Am sisters” for the world’s most stylish airline.
Betty accumulated many an interesting story of walking down the aisles serving the rich and famous, and, as per employer guidelines, treating them the same as everyone. It was not all glamour and celebrities, though – it was hard work, too. The Pan Am sisters were expected: to know the names of all of the first class passengers; to prepare seven course gourmet meals in incredibly confined spaces; to look absolutely immaculate at all times; to be fluent in more than one language. They also had to possess all the skills a fine woman was expected to have, and be able to deliver a baby if need be. These are Betty’s personal anecdotes from her time with Pan Am, Saudi prince and all.
Riegel’s memoir left me convinced I’d been born into the wrong era. Air travel has become yet another modern luxury that we take for granted. The same can be said for women choosing and following a career: nowadays it is expected, but it hasn’t always been so. Betty had to fight for hers, and she handled it with aplomb, instilling in me a real sense of admiration for her. In Up in the Air, the now 72-year old woman paints a colourful picture of a different time, with some wonderfully vibrant characters, and highlights how much things have changed. A worthwhile read for anyone interested in a bit of nostalgia, the progress of working women, taking a peak into someone else’s life, or just in a bit of a different read.