Yesterday, we shared a video about Elly, a long-serving member of cabin crew at Etihad Airways who was actually one of the very first flight attendants to join the Abu Dhabi-based airline some 15-years ago. But Etihad is a mere baby in the aviation world when compared to the age of some of the biggest airline brands around the world.
A few days ago, senior executives at Delta Air Lines – including the airline’s chief executive, Ed Bastion – decided to surprise one of their very first flight attendants as she celebrated her 102nd birthday. Sybil Peacock Harmon, who joined the Atlanta-based carrier way back in 1940, is believed to be the oldest former flight attendant in the world.
Known as a stewardess when she joined the company at the age of 24, Sybil describes feeling like a celebrity during her three-year career as a flight attendant: “People would come out to the airport with their children and they would say, ‘Look, that’s the stewardess!’ They even asked for our autographs,” she recalls.
It was partly down to the Second World War that Sybil got the chance to earn her wings. The very first flight attendant was believed to be a German man, called Heinrich Kubis who actually worked on giant airships including the LZ 129 Hindenburg – which caught fire in 1937 resulting in the death of 13 passengers and 22 crewmen.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s the role of a flight attendant was considered to be a profession just for men. One of the first commercial airlines in the world, Imperial Airways actually called its cabin crew – “cabin boys”. A far cry from the image we hold today of cabin crew being predominantly female.
That all changed as the war effort ramped up and young men were conscripted into the military. For women like Sybil, becoming a stewardess was pioneering. At the time, flight attendants had to be registered nurses such was the fear of passengers suffering from illness or injury.
Initially working on DC-3 aircraft which only seated 21 passengers, Sybil fondly remembers serving in-flight boxed meals of fried chicken, potato salad and Coca-Cola. Chewing gum would be handed out to passengers to cope with the fact that the plane wasn’t even pressurised.
“We called them ‘War Babies’ because they were so young,” Sybil says of the young military pilots that Delta helped fly back from war zones in North Africa. Often they would sleep for the whole flight because they were so exhausted but when they struggled Sybil and her colleagues would play poker with the passengers.
“I was amazed these young men actually flew huge bombers and fighters,” Sybil recalls.
Sybil went onto marry U.S. Army Capt. Wallace Harmon and her daughter even followed in her footsteps, working as a Delta flight attendant from 1973 to 2008.
Nowadays, landing a flight attendant job with Delta is just as hard. Last October, Delta said it would hire over 1,000 flight attendants in 2018 – but the competition is fierce. During a similar recruitment drive in 2017, over 150,000 candidates applied for just 1,200 coveted flight attendant jobs.
35,000 video interviews and 6,000 in-person interviews later and less than 1% of candidates actually succeeded in being offered a job to fly for Delta.
Delta isn’t currently accepting applications for new flight attendants although you can keep up to date on the official Delta careers site.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.