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Monday, Oct. 6, 2008 | For all the passengers boarding this Boeing 737 know, Delora Snow might have always been perched there in row 13, resting one knee up on the seat, her blond hair styled in a neat bob. She could have been waiting there forever just to help them hoist their bags into the bins above their heads, been preparing to meet their harried just-rushed-through-security faces with a calm smile.

Snow’s a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines. She’s one of the thousands of people travelers brush up against on their trips through the airport, across the country, around the world. Her arms steady an elderly woman as she navigates the narrow aisle of the plane. Her voice implores the residents of the exit row to assume the safety responsibility tied to their extra legroom. Her hands demonstrate the proper use of a seatbelt, of a yellow oxygen mask. Her pen notes their drink orders — a cranberry juice for 17D, a Diet Coke for 17F, nothing for the guy by the window who fell asleep as soon as he boarded.

Passengers know these assembled pieces of a flight attendant well — the arms, the voice, the hands, the pen, the smile. Some frequent fliers recognize by face attendants who fly their common routes, occasionally bringing them chocolates or other treats. Some passengers might make polite small talk with them about the weather.

But often, passengers interact superficially with a flight attendant for a few hours — do you have an extra blanket? — and then disembark without ever knowing anything about the person who brought them a cocktail and a pack of honey roasted peanuts. What might they miss?

In Snow’s case, they’d miss out on the story of a woman from Escondido, a lifelong San Diegan, a mom of three who has seen monumental changes in the airline industry during her two-decade career in it. They wouldn’t know her son is a firefighter, or that one of her daughters just competed in the Beijing Olympics on the U.S. Women’s Field Hockey team. They wouldn’t know that Snow took some time off this summer when her youngest daughter’s boyfriend was killed in Iraq.

Snow dreamed of becoming a flight attendant as a girl and finally became one two years ago. She’s one of 9,771 flight attendants who work for Southwest Airlines, one of 140 of them who live in San Diego, though Southwest doesn’t have a base here. Still, the airline has the most passenger traffic in and out of Lindbergh Field, carrying about one-third of the airport’s 50,000 arriving and departing passengers every day. Workers like Snow commute to their base airports — in her case, Las Vegas — to start their workdays. The airline pays for them to get there, but they’re not allowed to bump someone just to get to work in time to fly their scheduled flights. Because Vegas is a popular destination, that means Snow might arrive at the airport here at 8 a.m. to make sure she gets a seat on an outgoing flight, even if the first flight she’s working doesn’t leave Las Vegas until 3 p.m.

The night before this flight, she landed in San Diego after a long day of flights from Las Vegas to Albuquerque, Albuquerque to Phoenix, Phoenix to San Jose, San Jose to San Diego. She stayed in a hotel; sometimes the drive to Escondido just to sleep in her own bed isn’t worth it, if she’ll have to turn around to fly out of downtown San Diego again.

Today, Snow arrives at the airport about an hour before passengers board the plane for this quick Tuesday afternoon flight to Vegas. She walks through security and greets her colleagues at the gate. About 30 minutes before the 2 p.m. scheduled departure, one of them opens the door to the walkway to the plane and lets Snow and her fellow flight attendants and the pilots through.

Reaching the plane, Snow wheels her suitcase down the aisle, reaching above her head to flick open the storage bins on her way. At the back of the plane, she hoists her bag into a bin, and begins checking the equipment in the back compartment off the plane. She checks the fire extinguisher, the megaphone, counts the life vests and opens a compartment for flashlights. She opens the bathroom door and checks the fire warning placard. At the front of the plane, she pulls out and checks the kit holding the defibrillator. Her pre-flight check complete, Snow moves to the middle of the plane and leans on a knee on a seat.

As passengers trickle on board, Snow smiles at them, betraying no sign of bracing herself to enforce the rules. But she’ll have to regulate if a passenger has tried to sneak on the plane more than two carry-ons — one that fits above and one that has to be fit under the seat. It’s not Snow’s only passenger screening task. Sometimes she has to boot passengers for being drunk when they board.

“It’s a really, really hard call,” she says. “Regardless if they’re really mellow, they’re not supposed to be flying drunk.”

Add counselor to the list of hats Snow wears. She’s honed her sense for the fear of flying among her passengers.

“Some people are very, very afraid,” she says. “I talk to them, comfort them. Every other flight, I think, you see someone who’s deathly afraid of flying.”

Some passengers head straight for the exit row seats. Those seats come with extra responsibility of lifting and opening the heavy exit door in case of an emergency. It’s Snow’s job to ascertain if the people who sit there would be able to help.

Here, there are problems Snow can solve. Need a blanket? She’ll find one. Can’t find a seat? She’ll figure out who’s trying to save an empty seat by keeping a laptop or a jacket on it. Thirsty? She’ll bring you water. And, of course, Snow’s trained to help if the ultimate problem arises and the passengers need directing for staying calm and —hopefully — safe during a crash landing.

At her last job, Snow worked as a customer service supervisor and trainer for U.S. Airways. She encountered problems there, too, that she was supposed to solve. At the start of her 20 years there, the institutional attitude was that the customer was always right. But by the end, it was all about saving money.

“It went from ‘Go ahead and try to help this person’ to ‘Just say no,’” she says. “And it just got worse from there. If you don’t treat your passengers well, it could be a miserable place to work.”

That’s what drove her to take a buyout a couple of years ago. And though Snow thought she’d hung up her airline industry hat for good, some friends who’d made the jump to Southwest evangelized her — it’s different here, they said. You’ll love how relaxed, how friendly it is. Now, two years into her stint as a flight attendant, even after taking a pay cut, she agrees with them.

“They let you be yourself — have that personality,” she says.

That personal expression shows up in Snow’s work here, and in the work of her co-attendants today, Rickie Spand and Nicol Burns. As Burns and Snow demonstrate the safety procedures, their performances accented with their seatbelt and air mask props, Spand launches into his spiel on the loudspeaker. The plane’s seats for 137 passengers are about half-filled.

“Folks, we have a very special birthday up here,” Spand announces into the telephone at the front of the plane. “We have a guy up here who just turned 78 years old, and it’s his first flight.”

Passengers murmur.

“So when you leave,” he continues, “Make sure you say ‘Happy birthday’ to the captain.”

Groans fill the cabin. But Spand doesn’t stop. “If you don’t like my jokes,” he says, beginning his safety announcement, “there are six emergency exits …”

As Spand wraps up his speech, some passengers close their eyes, read the newspaper, stare out the window at the moving lines on the runway. Snow walks down the aisle, checking to make sure the overhead bins are closed. Once the plane’s airborne, Snow and Burns grab pens and clipboards and begin taking drink orders. “What can I get you to drink, sir?” she asks a passenger. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asks the next one.

She notes the orders on a piece of grid paper. The sheet looks like a complicated cipher, a matrix of letters and numbers corresponding to seat numbers:

DC OJ

K CJ

OJ gin ton

“We all kind of do it our own way,” she says, pouring drinks in the galley at the back of the plane next to Burns, whose sheet looks completely different.

After they’ve served drinks and wandered the aisles a couple of times to pick up trash, the pilot announces the plane’s final descent to Las Vegas. It’s a quick flight, one that feels even more frantic when the plane is full of Friday passengers who are ready to start their partying on the way to Vegas, Snow says.

The plane lands a couple of minutes before 3 p.m. As passengers exit, Snow says good-bye to them. She and Burns and Spand chat as they wait for the next crew to come to replace them; this flight will continue to Dulles airport in Washington, D.C. They talk about “Airline,” an A&E show that aired for a couple of years earlier this decade and was based on the experiences of Southwest Airlines employees. Spand says the issues on the show — disgruntled passengers, issues with “customers of size,” passengers who’ve had too much to drink — are all based in reality.

But the superficial interaction that leaves passengers without any knowledge of Snow’s personal life easily goes both ways. A flight attendant who judges a customer based on her mood or based on his attitude likely doesn’t have the whole story, she says. Many passengers are heading to funerals or to see family members in the hospital. Those reactions aren’t personal, she says, and she tries to remind herself of that when someone is rude.

The next crew comes and Snow wheels her bag off the plane and past rows of slot machines inside the Vegas airport. She walks straight to a gate and checks in for her flight back to San Diego. She’s off-duty now and is headed home. She boards the plane and plunks down in a window seat, chatting with the flight attendants as she navigates the aisle. A light problem in the cockpit will delay the plane’s takeoff, the pilot explains over the loudspeaker. Snow leans her head back on her seat.

“I could sit here at the window and just look out,” she says.

She loves her job, she explains to a visitor who has followed her on this quick there-and-back trip. After dreaming of “the glamour” of flight attending as a girl, she got married at 17 and started raising children, putting the dream on hold. But now, she’s left her desk job and is a flight attendant at long last.

It can be tough to be away from home so much, she says, but the flexibility of switching flights with other attendants means she can work six to nine days in a row and be off for two weeks without having to dip into vacation. That gave her the chance to fly red-eye to Virginia to watch every field hockey game her daughters played in college. And the chance to see her daughter, Tiffany, play in Beijing this summer, where the team placed eighth. And the chance to be close to her other daughter when her boyfriend was killed earlier this year in Iraq.

A flight attendant has to strike instant bonds with her coworkers; on long trips, they practically live together for days on end. They bond over shoes (Dansko is a favored brand) and favorite stay-overs (Snow loves where they stay in Jacksonville and Philadelphia). They compare notes and jokes for delivering the spiels during the flights.

How long might she last in the post? Snow isn’t sure, but she thinks maybe another decade or so.

“It’s not like work at all,” she says.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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