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Becoming an airline flight attendant after age 40

Becoming an airline flight attendant after age 40

Marilyn Joe had a life she describes as "comfortable, predictable, scheduled."

She had been a dental hygienist for 27 years. She had raised a son and a daughter. Her husband worked long hours in the management of a trucking firm. She did the housework on Mondays, worked in the dentist's office Tuesdays and Wednesdays, prepared for her Sunday school class Thursdays.

"I gave it all up," she says. It's a declaration and not an expression of regret.

In January 2000, the middle-age wife and mother of two went to Minneapolis to train as a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines. She lived 5 1/2 weeks in an apartment with three roommates and rode a school bus to classes six days a week. After she finished training, her first base for three months was Detroit.

Back in Memphis, her husband and her daughter, who was still in high school at the time, learned to keep the house, do the laundry, get their own meals. Her husband, Shun, did have more time to devote to household chores when Marilyn became a flight attendant: Her insurance benefits enabled him to retire from his corporate job and go into "semi-retirement" running a specialty air freight business with a friend.

Marilyn Joe, who's 50, says one of her favorite comments about her adventuresome mid-career switch was from a 22-year-old fellow trainee in Minneapolis who complained that her own parents "sit around and do the same things all the time. They'd never do anything cool like this.'"

Marilyn Joe is a less unusual presence in training classes for flight attendants than her younger companion thought. Two people among the 36 who completed training in Joe's class last year were older than she. Two of the people in her apartment during training were in their 20s, and two, including Joe at the time, were in their 40s.

Northwest spokesman Doug Killian in Minneapolis says the company does not have average-age figures for the 11,000 or so Northwest flight attendants nationally. But he says the ages of people who are entering training for the job now range from 20 to 60 as airlines compete for competent workers.

Forty years ago, it wasn't possible to start a career as a flight attendant at age 60 or even 40. In fact, when Marilyn Legg began working for United Airlines in 1960, she signed a form agreeing to quit when she was 35.

"If you were 35, you were considered by management to be an old broad - it was all women then - and they didn't want anybody 'old' out there," Legg says.

At the time, she didn't find the requirements at all shocking.

"I didn't think a thing about it," says Legg, 61, who still has the form she signed. "I didn't hesitate. I was so excited about going to work, I never thought about being discriminated against, didn't know what the word was."

By the time Legg was 35 in the mid-'70s, no one would have tried to enforce that document, and not just because hiring practices were more highly evolved. As jets got larger, so did crew sizes, and the airlines weren't looking for ways to eliminate competent workers.

Joe would have been a flight attendant 30 years ago if her mother had let her. When she was at Arkansas State University, she and some of her sorority sisters bought tickets to go to Texas and interview with Braniff Airlines for jobs. She knew her mother would disapprove, but she called her to tell her about the plan. "She said, `You stay right there.' She wanted me to get my college degree."

At this point in her life, Joe was attracted to flying by the insurance benefits and the guaranteed 11 days off each month. And of course travel. She's been to San Juan, Cancun, Rome and Amsterdam. She and her husband celebrated his birthday in Las Vegas.

Joe said that while she was training to be a flight attendant last year she spent most of her free time for five weeks studying.

"We were learning about engines and doors. It was a different language for me," Joe said. Nineteen of the 55 people who started in her class didn't make it.

Joe says the experience she had in life - raising children and working in a dentist's office - before she became a flight attendant was an advantage.

"I don't have the expectations that people in their 20s have," she said. She's patient, she says, and she has acquired self-assurance on the job. "You have to be confident and assertive to deal with passengers. The exposure to new people and surroundings really stretches you."

(Peggy Burch writes for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis)

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