by Dr. Timothy Smith
For the Vacation ’05 issue of The Better Drink, we really wanted to interview someone serving at the heart of the travel industry for so often vacation and travel go hand in hand. In this issue we spoke via phone with Peggy O’Brien-Gould. Peggy works for Delta Airlines as a flight attendant as she has for the past 18 years, flying both national and international routes. She took her first position at Delta in Boston in the late ‘80s. Now, she lives back in her native Washington State. Her wealth of experience and sense of fun come out as we talk about travel and learn a little bit about the mystique of the flight attendant.
Tim: Now, you started off in Boston a few years ago as a flight attendant. How did you decide to become a flight attendant?
Peggy: I never wanted to be a flight attendant or anything, and then I was at a party and a girl whom I knew worked for Northwest was at this big party. She said that she had just gotten back from London and had taken her friend with her to go shopping. And I said, “How’d you do that.” She said, “I got a job as a flight attendant and we can take friends with us.” Right then and there I said I should do that for a while so that I can go around and visit some of the people I met on my study abroad program. That’s when I started putting out the little applications. I did and I actually did go over to Europe and visit with almost everyone from study abroad at one time or another. But it was all because she said she had gone to London shopping.
I thought that I would do it for five years and stop and then do administration. But that didn’t happen. I don’t know, the more you do it, there’s a sort of turning point where a lot of people quit, but a lot of people find something they really like about it. Because it is hard sometimes with the people and the time zones and the sleep and everything. There was a time when I just thought that this is fun and I like to help people. This is a good chance for that. I do like to have my own time at home and I have my horse. I like to go to horse shows and to go skiing and I like to do all of that. So, it really provides time do all the things you enjoy when you are not at work. And I think that is just as important as making a living if not more.
Tim: This interview is for our Travel Issue, and naturally flight attendants come quickly to mind when I think of travel. Could you tell a bit about the mystique of the flight attendant?
Peggy: Well, it’s funny because flight attendants have had so many images over the years, of course, different parts of the country I’ve found perceive them differently as well. When I first told my dad who was old retired Air Force and former Boeing executive that I was going to be a flight attendant, he said, “What do you want to be an air hostess for?” [laughs] So that was his era’s perception, and there was the stewardess perception of the ‘70s with all the fancy outfits they go to wear. They had the best, sexiest reputation. You know. And then it became more of a job for any kind of person in the ‘80s and ‘90s. By the time I hooked up with it. It was a more just a regular job. The Replacements wrote a song about it, “I’m Just Calling a Waitress in the Sky.” There is a whole evolution of how flight attendants are seen.
As for myself, when I go places, I think I do see myself differently, more as a helper. People can, even when I am not in my uniform somehow tell that I am a flight attendant, and they still come up and ask me all the questions even if I am just in regular clothes.
Tim: You have the full persona.
Peggy: Yeah, they can somehow sense that I am a good person to ask a question of. It still surprises when I am in regular clothes and someone asks me where to hang their garment bag or something. How did they know?
Tim: When in uniform how do your passengers treat you?
Peggy: That’s evolved over the years too. I think when I was a new flight attendant, people were really busy and self involved in the ‘80s and it was more demanding. Not very many people were interested in conversing and so on. I think as time changed and I grew up a little, and kind of became more interested in people themselves. I found people that looked interesting or had a little light in their eyes, and I would drift towards them. I found a lot of people that had interesting stories to tell. Those people treat all the people they meet in the world traveling as a partner in their voyage. I became drawn to them.
Tim: That’s really interesting. You must have met lots of people; are there any stories that come to mind off the top of your head?
Peggy: Oh, yeah there are so many great stories. At one point, my sister and I were on our way to Greece, and we were seated back by a row of windows. There was an old African American woman all dressed up in a Sunday best kind of outfit. She was really old and we wanted to find out where she was going and everything. We started talking to her she was so energetic, just a spitfire. She was a retired teacher with a list of all the places in the world she wanted to go. She was 86, and she was on her way to Greece to see the Parthenon and all the famous historical sights. She had a list of all the places she’d been and all the places that she wanted to go. She said that she had not started the list until she was in her seventies. We thought that she was just an incredible person. She inspired me to make a list like that too.
Tim: Are there any particular flight routes, routes that you feel you have served more champagne than on others?
Peggy: Yes, of course nowadays it’s all international flights, and they are the only flights we have champagne anymore.
Peggy: Yeah, they took it off domestically to save money. Which is a shame, because there is nothing better when you are going on a little holiday than a little bit of bubbly on your flight and they usually tasted better than the other wines we had. But on the international flights we still have a variety of good champagnes that we offer, and I always like to serve that because it makes it more special.
Tim: Do you find there is difference between coach and first class?
Peggy: In the champagne quality?
Tim: Yes, and in the quantity, well, per person.
Peggy: Yes, definitely, in first class there is a champagne that we serve on the ground, which is a much less expensive variety, usually because everything that we serve on the ground we have to discard. All the alcohol that is to be used in flight needs to be locked up because of customs. So we have this throw away champagne that we serve on the ground for the people just getting seated. Once we are in the air, we serve nice champagne that was selected by the wine experts at Delta hired at one point. The people in first class get to drink that out of real glasses with the whole presentation and everything. In coach there are little splits of champagne that the people get, but we only get a certain number. I think there are only 24 on the whole airplane.
Peggy: So they run out a lot faster. But first class keeps it flowing pretty good.
Tim: They are picking up the slack for coach?
Peggy: They are!
Tim: What kinds of people do you usually find riding in first class?
Peggy: Mostly business people. That’s why on the whole alcohol consumption is down. Many people are traveling back and forth to work, often going directly from the flight to meetings or business engagements. So, the drinking and enjoying of their champagne has diminished over the years. And they also sleep a lot more with full seats. It’s mostly business people and a few retired business people traveling on their miles.
Not very many young people. And I haven’t had a rock band up there since the late ‘80s.
Tim: You’re kidding?
Peggy: No, they all have their private planes now. I haven’t seen a rock band since Scorpions!
Tim: Since you are a flight attendant and travel all the time, do you go places for your own vacations, or do you like to stay home?
Peggy: I do usually like to take one big trip a year. I used to go to Europe at least once or twice a year, but now that I am flying European routes, for the last year or so. I haven’t been back to Europe on my own because I was there every week. Although it’s not the same when you have only 24 or 48 hours. So lately I have been spending my big vacations for ski vacations in the US and Canada. A little less time flying and a little more time on a mountain.
Tim: How many days out of a month will you fly?
Peggy: It really depends. It’s up to me; we are really flexible that way, a lot of people like to fly as much as they can. For finances, they don’t view it as travel or a place to go but as this many hours and money in the bank. I like more time off and enjoying the trips I do a little more. Maybe I do three or four trips to Europe a month—three day trips.
Tim: Now, at home do you have other responsibilities with the airline or do you just walk away and that’s it.
Peggy: That’s the beauty of it.
Tim: I got it.
Peggy: When I leave work it’s done, and I can really enjoy my time at home. I don’t have homework or things I have to do. Unless I happen to be writing up incidents on a log of what happened on the airplane, which is quite rare nowadays, used to do it a lot. That’s when you are flying as a leader, the onboard leader as we call it, if anything happens on your flight, you keep a record of any circumstances, and so on.
Tim: So people are pretty well behaved these days. Do you think things have changed since September 11 th.
Peggy: Oh yeah, definitely, it’s totally different. I just think that people are a lot nicer. People are a lot more, I don’t know if it is a compassion for flight attendants, I think they are more aware of their surroundings and that in turn makes them more aware of other people and their space and what’s going on. That’s nice when you see people more engaged. It seems like people used to be a lot more disengaged from their environment of being on the airplane. Now they are more aware that they are in that metal tube with a bunch of other human beings and they are all sharing the same space.
Tim: Does it seem like people have come together a bit more?
Peggy: It seems like it, and I did not expect it to be like that when I went back to work after September 11 th, but I thought it was really emotional as far as this shift that I felt from the attitudes of people. I think whenever you take a look and become more aware, it changes the dynamic of what’s going on with people. Maybe that little bit of awareness made them seem more pleasant to be around. It really did make a difference in dealing with people person to person. It seems everyone is a lot more willing to work together on the aircraft.
Tim: Can you recall one of your most harrowing flights, and something you did to make it a little easier?
Peggy: A harrowing flight? Well, I’ve had different kinds of harrowing flights. I’ve had exteriorly harrowing flights, such as very bad turbulence. I’m not really a person that’s afraid of turbulence because it strikes me as something that if you are seated and belted in that you will rarely hit the ground, you are so high in the air. On landing once we had really pretty bad wind shear, and I remember holding onto the jump seat in the back kind of questioning the wisdom of landing in that. We were swinging around quite a bit. In the aft portion of the plane you can really feel that a lot. But we made it fine with a little bit of a pop on landing and everything was fine. That was the most nervous I’ve been.
And then in the aircraft, a long time ago we had some weird incidences of people attacking another person on the airplane. It was so strange because I was just told of it, I was up in the first class cabin. Somebody came up and said there was a man hitting the woman he was traveling with. I went back to find out what’s going on and separate them. It was so strange, I was actually afraid to talk to the man. When somebody is that uncorked you don’t know what they are going to do to anybody else. His face was all red and his blood was already a boil. He seemed quiet though, so we just landed and had the police meet him at the gate and have a chat with him.
Tim: That’s some really friendly sky. For me travel seldomly means business but is usually going someplace fun. Are there any particular times of year or destinations where you can sense the vacation vibe. Or does it seem to be more business than pleasure?
Peggy: It definitely seems more business than pleasure. But I also don’t choose to go to pleasure destinations either because to me the cities that have business seem a little more interesting. I like going to London, Paris, or Rome. Although those are pleasure destinations too they are not your typical vacation spots.
Tim: So have you ever had to fly to some real vacation spots like Orlando or Mexico.
Peggy: Oh, god, Orlando that’s my version of hell. [laughs]
Tim: Do you care to elaborate?
Peggy: There are pleasure destinations for families, and it is not fun to work those flights.
Tim: Oh, you have to elaborate a little bit.
Peggy: I don’t know, those flights always seem very chaotic, and people that are not used to flying are pressed for time and don’t have enough food or things for their kids to play with. No matter how it starts out it always end in tears. Yes, I have been to Orlando.
Tim: How about Honolulu?
Peggy: Actually, Honolulu, I started flying that last winter, and I thought that was fun. I’d never been there on my own. I had my first layover there and I was walking around Waikiki. We have a 24-hour layover there; so I thought what am I going to do as I am only laying out by the pool. So I started taking surfing lessons. [Awesome!] So every week for a couple of months, I went and took surfing lessons down on the beach. It was really fun, loved it.
Tim: Have you had any other places that you have flown that have a nice long layover that afforded you the opportunity to ski or surf or ride horses?
Peggy: Well, I’ve gone skiing a few times on my layovers, and also taken advantage one time we had a mechanical in Salt Lake City. The plane was broken and they told us to go to a hotel. So a couple of the other flight attendants, we all ran downstairs and rented skis, skiing outfits, gloves, goggles, everything a car. [laughs] We had nothing with us, and we jumped in a car, drove up to Brighton and skied all day. They fixed the plane by that night and we made it back in time to fly out. It was really fun and blizzard too—so much snow.
Let’s see I’ve gone horseback riding. I’ve gone to horse shows in West Palm Beach to watch a friend of mine compete down there. In Amsterdam, I went and saw a friends dance performance downtown on my layover. So when there are people you can get out with and visit, it really makes it personal and fun.
Tim: Was your friend’s horseshow hunter jumper or western?
Peggy: Yeah, hunter jumper. My friend took two of her horses down to West Palm Beach for the winter, and showed in the big horse show circuit down there. So I flew down to watch her ride and watch her horses. It was great because that is what I do here.
Tim: Was it a great scene down there?
Peggy: It was the best of the best. There were world-class horses, a bunch of people from our Olympic team; they had tons of different rings going at once of the great Grand-Prix jumpers in one field and the young jumpers moving up the ranks in another field and a couple of rings of hunter action and the kids and all the ponies in another one. It was really fun. It was a massive facility, huge.
Tim: So what do they win?
Peggy: That’s the funny thing about hunter jumper shows you don’t win much—you get a little ribbon.
Tim: They don’t even give you a bottle of champagne?
Peggy: In some of the event you do get a lot of champagne. I was over in England at my godchild’s christening and after the christening, my friends, whose parents live there, took us to a polo match, which was sponsored by Veuve Clicquot. We sat in the little members roped off area, and my friend and I started drinking champagne while watching the polo match. We met some other people, and pretty soon everybody was buying champagne for everybody else. This was in the little tent there in the hospitality area and we ended up drinking all the champagne that they had. And then they had to send someone in the little truck into town to fetch us some more because we weren’t done have our fun champagne at the polo match yet. That was probably the first time they ever ran out of champagne.
Tim: It seems that as a flight attendant you get to do some great mini excursions on your layovers not just stay in a hotel.
Peggy: There are lots of little fun things I get to do. One year I got to go down to Argentina to watch the World Championships of the J-24 sailboat races. Spent about a week down there in Buenos Aries at the Buenos Aries Yacht Club. That was fun.
Tim: That’s and exotic destination how did you get into that?
Peggy: Um, at the time, someone that I was going out with raced those boats and was racing for the championship there.
Tim: That must be part of the flight attendant mystique, the fact that you do go to exotic places all the time, and if you are alert you or plan ahead you have the chance to do many things more earthbound people can’t.
Peggy: That’s true. If you want to play with the jet set you’re right there. If you are sociable and are not afraid to put yourself in different situations, you can really get out there and have a great time. I know so many friends of mine have also flown around the world. If you are adventurous, the adventure can really come to you. It’s fun and a lot of people like to meet new people and have fun.
Tim: Have you met anyone traveling like this who has really stuck and become real friend? You can meet some people for a fun day and that’s it, but I find it interesting to watch and see who sticks. It’s not always obvious who it will be.
Peggy: Oh, yeah, I have made many friends that way. It is interesting the people you keep in touch with for whatever reasons. E-mail has made that much easier. Over the years I have made a lot of good friends. I am the sort of person who likes to keep in touch loosely with people over the years.
Tim: Being a flight attendant really facilitates the lifestyle of travel and sport, which might not even be available if you were working a different type of job.
Peggy: Especially with riding the horses, I was able to ride four days a week several hours a day; the only ones riding more than me were the professionals. Then I always had time off I could take when there was a horseshow that was a week long that I wanted to go to, I could always go.
Tim: Have you ever put your horse on the plane?
Peggy: [laughs] No, but I have often daydreamed about buying a horse in Ireland and bringing it over. I hear from some friends of mine that it costs about as much as a business class ticked but the horse doesn’t get any champagne. [laughs]
Tim: The poor thing.
Peggy: They cough up the cash but they don’t get the bubbly.
Tim: So if your horse is essentially in horse business class and you are in coach do you get the champagne kickover.
Peggy: No, I think they fly on a completely different plane.
Tim: Have you met anybody in the wine industry in your travels that you would care to share with us?
Peggy: I’m sure that I have but that didn’t come up. I like to bring local wine home from wherever I am visiting. I always bring a couple of bottles just for my own personal use at the dinner table. I always go to a local wine shop or grocery store in whatever country I’m in and browse around and find something interesting. It always adds a little spice to the dinner conversation when you brought in your own wine from Europe or wherever you were. And also food items too. I like to bring whatever is portable. Cheeses, pastas, vinegars, and all that kind of thing. I hardly ever bring back souvenirs anymore just wine and food.
Tim: You mean you already have enough Tower of London ashtrays?
Peggy: I think everyone has enough of those!
Tim: One last holiday/vacation question:. You as a flight attendant, what type of things would you recommend to some one going on a vacation. You travel so much, what are 2 or 3 hot points that you simply must do to have a great flight?
-If you want to have a great flight you always want to get there early so that you never feel rushed.
-Check what you can, it makes it so much easier on you. If you are going for a long time and you have quite a bit of stuff, you might as well check whatever you can so that you don’t have to carry and stow and sort of heave things around other bodies.
-And then if you can sort of detach from the anxiety and the pressure and stress of getting to the airport and getting your ticket and checked in and through security, and everything, once you’re in the airport, in the terminal and on the airplane you got to kind of marvel about how amazing it is that everyday human beings can fly, and totally change their surroundings in a matter of hours.
Then you can really enjoy the experience of where you are and where you are going and maybe some of the people you meet. I think that makes it a lot more pleasant, more fun and more interesting when you take the shift of your emphasis off getting to where you are going and making it about experiencing the feat, the accomplishment or how you are getting where you are going, that the airplane can fly and everybody has a life to go to when they land. It’s really amazing when you think about it. So enjoy the journey as well as the destination.
Tim: Thank you Peggy for sharing your time and insight with us. It is a great pleasure to talk with you.
Peggy: Thank you it has been a pleasure.
Tim: Good luck in all your travels.