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Flight attendant says goodbye after 50 years

When Patti Smart was hired as an Aloha Airlines stewardess 50 years ago, it was a different job for a different time.
Image: Patti Smart
After more than 50 years of service as a stewardess for Aloha Airlines, Patty Smart is set to retire.Marco Garcia / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Patti Smart was hired as an Aloha Airlines stewardess 50 years ago, it was a different job for a different time.

She rubbed elbows with Frank Sinatra, performed in-flight fashion shows and danced in smoke-filled aisles aboard cramped DC-3s seating two dozen passengers.

Smart, nicknamed the "Queen of Aloha," retires Friday after more than a half-century on the job she started when she was 18 years old.

A lot has changed since the old days, when people dressed up in hats and bow ties to fly on propeller-powered planes across the Pacific.

"You're supposed to have the same niceness, the same warmth, the same caring. But it's faster now," Smart said. "In the older days, the flights were longer so you had more time to be intimate with passengers and you got to be very good friends with them."

Smart has the third most years in the sky among the 55,000 flight attendants represented by the Association of Flight Attendants. The most senior flight attendant in the nation started her job in 1950.

Smart was paid $170 per month for 85 hours of work after she was hired on Jan. 28, 1957.

Today, as the airline's most senior flight attendant (they're not called stewardesses anymore), she makes $43.50 per hour catering to first-class passengers on flights between Orange County, Calif., and Honolulu.

Hearing Smart reminisce over times gone by makes her job sound more like fun than work. She laughs when remembering affable celebrities, prankster pilots and a box-like cart that sheltered passengers from the rain as they disembarked.

The job has grown on her so much that she's reluctant to leave.

"There will be sparks flying from my feet as they drag me down the runway," she said.

One time, she got into a tight spot when her skirt flew out the window.

As she was serving pineapple juice to passengers, she spilled it all over her uniform. She changed into a pair of pants and washed out her skirt in the lavatory. When she tried to air-dry the skirt by letting it flap in the breeze from the cockpit window, one of the pilots snatched it and let it fly out the window.

"I wanted to kill those two," she said. "I wanted to get their two heads together and whack them. They were laughing and laughing."

The joke didn't stop there. Another pilot on the next flight out radioed her plane and teased that he had caught the skirt as it went flying by. Other pilots also heard the radio report of the flight attendant who lost her skirt, and the story quickly traveled around the world.

Retired Aloha Airlines Capt. Ron Sprink recalls that Smart was "a barrel of fun" when she started flying, and she acquired the skill of keeping her passengers orderly soon afterward.

"The ones who stay on for a long career, the dedication shows through, and they have to snap their fingers at people every once in a while," Sprink said.

With the advent of lower-cost flights with fewer amenities, air travel has lost some of its charm, Smart said. Passengers are more concerned with getting where they're going than enjoying the ride.

Aloha Airlines has been engaged in a three-way airfare war with rivals Hawaiian and upstart go! airlines for more than a year.

"The pie is the same size, but there are more slices," Smart said. "These are trying times. Fuel is going up, and everyone is feeling the pinch."

Even after retirement, Smart will continue to participate in a group that meets for monthly prayers for the company's survival.

"Aloha was started out of adversity. We became strong out of adversity, and we will survive despite adversity," she said. "I think we're going to make it."