Our Stories: A Change in the Air

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By Ruth Bracewell

When I was hired as a Delta Air Lines “stewardess” in 1969, Delta was barely out of the crop dusting era, and the fleet included prop planes as well as jets.  A small, southern carrier, we flew schedules like Atlanta to Birmingham to Jackson to Shreveport to Dallas and back to Atlanta by the same route. A truly exciting trip would be to the west coast – San Francisco or Los Angeles. There were about 500 stewardesses, and almost all were young, unmarried, white females.

Over my 50 plus year career, Delta has grown to be one of the largest airlines in the world, serving over 300 destinations and carrying 200 million passengers a year. Delta is the world’s largest airline by revenue. We serve such exotic locations as Dubai, Singapore, Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Beijing, Mumbai, Tokyo and every major European country. My own department, Inflight Service, now has approximately 25,000 flight attendants from all over the world.  The name change from stewardess to flight attendant was the result of the changing demographics of a job that today features as many men as women. Many rules and restrictions have changed over the years, and today’s flight attendants are enjoying lifelong careers. 

Or we were until Covid-19. Delta has weathered serious setbacks during my 50-year career, but nothing compared to the current emergency. 

When I started flying, the major threat was hijackings, usually by political refugees who wanted to go back to Cuba. These were relatively tame affairs – no one ever died as the result of a Delta hijacking in the 1960s and 1970s, but they were still serious, scary, and disruptive. 

Delta has a stellar safety record, but we suffered a tragic crash in 1985.  Three pilots, five flight attendants, and 128 passengers were killed when a Lockheed Tristar was slammed to the ground by wind shear on approach to landing in Dallas-Fort Worth. This is the second-highest death toll of any L-1011 aviation accident anywhere in the world. In another accident, a Delta Boeing 727 crashed in 1988 on take-off from Dallas-Fort Worth. Two flight attendants and 12 passengers died in the crash. In both cases, safety measures were put in place afterwards to prevent similar accidents. Despite those crashes, I have never felt that I was in any danger on a Delta flight. I often remind folks that the most dangerous part of an airplane trip is the ride to the airport. Moderately severe turbulence is the worst that I have suffered on a Delta flight in over 50 years.  

Of course, the most significant aviation trauma during my career was brought about by the four coordinated terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The Department of Homeland Security was created to prevent a recurrence, and air travel underwent significant and intrusive security modifications to protect us all from terrorists in the air.    

Unfortunately, Delta was not able to sustain the financial losses which followed 9/11. The fuel disruptions of Hurricane Katrina, increased cost of jet fuel, low ticket fares, and strong low-cost rivals like JetBlue forced Delta to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2005.  A 19-month period of severe restructuring, furloughs, job cuts and salary reductions enabled the company to emerge from bankruptcy in 2007, leaner and stronger than before, with an additional 60 international destinations.  

 Now the aviation industry is faced with perhaps its greatest threat – a mysterious, deadly, highly infectious new virus which has brought airlines worldwide to their knees. Delta is not the only airline which has lost millions in revenue as the government urges citizens not to travel. Delta has cancelled 40 percent of its scheduled flights. Three hundred Delta planes are parked on remote tarmacs until needed again. Concourses C, D, and E are closed at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, formerly the busiest airport in the world. Layoffs and furloughs are expected. It all happened so fast, and the end is nowhere in sight. 

My company made a plea for as many employees as possible to take voluntary unpaid Leaves of Absence. This is supposed to be the best way we can help our company. Delta has been good to me for more than 50 years. I have been able to see the world in a way I never could have done without this job. It’s time to do my part. So…. I have requested and been granted a one-year Leave of Absence from a job that I love. As an international flight attendant who is used to long trips and layovers in foreign cities, I will now experience a very extended, albeit unpaid, vacation at home. Mike has been very patient with me, ever since I told him in 1969 that I would only fly for two or three years.  Now we will finally have more time together, more time to work on postponed projects, more time to just reflect and enjoy life. 

I don’t know if the airline industry, or Delta in particular, or I, as a flight attendant, will ever go back to the way it was. I’ll just have to wait and deal with that issue in one year when my Leave is over!

Ruth Barrow Bracewell is a native of Athens, Georgia who moved to Madison in 1976 with her husband, former Probate Court Judge Mike Bracewell

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