She flies on, pain still there
Kerry Firth says her job as a flight attendant has been altered by 9/11. She talks of “this constant, constant stress.’’
By VANESSA GEZARI
Published September 10, 2006
WINTHROP, Mass. — Three and a half hours before her flight, she walks around the kitchen barefoot in leopard-print pajamas, rolling hot curlers into her hair.
Kerry Firth is 48 but looks younger, with big blue eyes and a habit of sashaying in her United Airlines uniform, one hand trailing behind her like a model on a catwalk. She brushes on red lipstick. This is the face the world sees: a What-can-I-get-you-to-drink-sir? face.
But look closer, at the fine creases around her eyes, the determined set of her chin. This is the face of a woman who flew into Los Angeles during rioting, when looters were reportedly shooting at planes. She flew into Havana just ahead of a hurricane. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, she was sleeping off a night flight from Buenos Aires to Miami when a friend called and told her to turn on the TV.
Nearly five years later, two hours and 53 minutes to takeoff, she rubs on hand lotion in the apartment she shares with eight other flight attendants in a working-class Boston suburb.
“This is my job,” she says. “This is what I do. You’ve got to get on with it.”
As a young flight attendant at a small airline in England, where she was born, one of her passengers was an accused Irish Republican Army militant. The IRA put a bomb outside Harrod’s at the height of the Christmas rush, but the group didn’t attack planes.
Today, Kerry and thousands of other flight attendants serve under different terms, in airline cabins that have become key battlegrounds in the war on terror. In the last five years, she has gone from handing out hot towels at takeoff to studying the faces of passengers as they step on board: Is he agitated? Drunk? Does she need medicine? Is he a threat?
Since Sept. 11, planes have been equipped with reinforced cockpit doors. Thousands of pilots carry guns. More air marshals ride in coach.
Flight attendants have weighed the defensive capabilities of boiling water, ice mallets and drink trolleys. Some have taken self-defense classes. Their unions have lobbied Congress for mandatory security training, without success.
Flight attendants sometimes feel forgotten. When the U.S. Postal Service put out a commemorative stamp with a picture of firefighters, Kerry dropped a card in the suggestion box asking for a flight attendant stamp. No one got back to her. At her boyfriend’s son’s recital shortly after the attacks, everyone clapped for police and firefighters, and one of the kids sang a song about heroism. No one mentioned flight attendants.
“That hurt,” she says. “We were all very, very raw. It was like, 'What about us?’ ”
They don’t forget that day. One Boston-based flight attendant carries photos of his dead co-workers in plastic sleeves attached to his carry-on bag. Kerry thinks about it when she’s flying over New York.
“It’s like if you have a death, and every once in a while it just washes over you again,” she says. “It’s part of our family, and I don’t know if we want it to go away.”
Some of the biggest changes in her life have been economic. Competition from low-cost carriers, fewer passengers and higher security expenses have forced big airlines to cut costs. United and most other major carriers filed for bankruptcy, cutting pay and benefits.
Before Sept. 11, Kerry was paid $42.94 an hour to fly internationally out of Miami. Now she makes $37.09 an hour flying domestically out of Boston. She works more than she used to. Instead of a growing pension, she has a 401K. She buys clothes at Goodwill.
She still lives in Miami, where she pays the mortgage on a stucco house at the edge of a lake. But United closed its Miami base in 2004 to save money, so now Kerry flies to Boston to work.
She pays $180 a month for a share of the crash pad in Winthrop, a weathered town at the edge of East Boston under the flight line from Logan International Airport. Jeffrey Collman, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center, lived in an apartment downstairs.
The crash pad resembles a girl’s dormitory. Flight attendants sleep two to a room in bunk beds with rosy duvets. Each has her own kitchen shelf stocked with groceries. Yogurt and butter are marked with initials. The walls are plastered with notes from roommates who don’t expect to see each other:
This door is locked when the lock is going up and down, not sideways.
Please make sure coffee pot is off when you leave. Does not shut off automatically.
Kerry saw her first stewardesses when she was 9, on a trip to Paris. They were tall, beautiful women who walked the airplane aisle in shiny stockings. “They weren’t flight attendants,” Kerry says.
A bumper sticker on the freezer in her Miami garage explains the difference: A flight attendant is here to save your a--, not kiss it.
“We’re flight attendants now. We’re working Joes.”
Most flight attendants make between $17,000 and $40,000 a year. Many say they do it for the freedom and discounted travel. When they walk out of the airport, they’re done. At least that’s how it used to be.
“I think that’s one of the biggest changes we’ve had to live with,” Kerry says. “Just this constant, constant stress.”
In the kitchen, she unrolls the curlers. The clock says 1:17. Her plane leaves at 3:48.
“I got to go put on the suit,” she says.
She calls it her “bulletproof polyester,” but she knows it’s not bulletproof. At 1:23, she emerges in a navy blue dress, her hair pinned back, silver wings on her lapel. She wears regulation off-black stockings and square-toed black shoes.
In Terminal C, she passes through security into the locked area where United crew members meet for preflight briefings. A quilt hangs there, a small private memorial to the Boston-based crew of United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane to hit the World Trade Center.
Airline workers made the quilt by stitching together scraps of old United uniforms: the cuffs of first officers’ jackets, the lapels of flight attendant dresses, the necklines of blouses worn by customer service agents. Thirty-three crew members and 11 off-duty airline workers died that day.
“I just wanted to get flying immediately, immediately,” Kerry says, “because then they wouldn’t win.”
In Logan Airport, two military police stride around near Gate C-21, pistols strapped to their thighs, night sticks swinging from their belts.
“Folks, due to the heightened security, we ask you do not bring beverages on board,” a ticket agent says into a microphone.
Passengers file onto Kerry’s flight. When the purser asks that all portable electronic devices be turned off, an Italian woman doesn’t hear, or doesn’t understand. She switches on a tiny video camera and points it toward a window, filming takeoff.
TV screens descend from the ceiling, beaming a video on life preservers and oxygen masks into the cabin. Almost no one looks up.
Kerry walks the aisle, lifting a backpack into an overhead bin, asking a passenger to adjust his seat. Later, she pours water and orange juice, smilingly hands out mini-pretzels and cans of 7 Up. About 120 miles from Chicago, she comes through the cabin with a plastic trash bag.
“Thank you sir! Thank you!”
In Chicago, she watches from the galley as her flight to Miami boards. Kerry never wanted to be a mother, but at work she sometimes acts like one.
“Did you flush?” she asks a little girl stepping out of the bathroom.
At 37,000 feet, the cabin lights dim and Mission: Impossible III comes on.
On the movie screens, a man flies through a window, a building explodes. The cabin feels like another world: dark, quiet, safe. Lulled by wine and the movie, the passengers look vulnerable. Their muscles slacken. Some sleep against windows or hunched over tray tables.
The flight touches down in Miami at 11:06 p.m. Kerry and the other flight attendants walk off last, pulling their black bags. She stands on the curb, waiting for her boyfriend, Robert, to pick her up.
At home, a bouquet of flowers waits. Robert, a burly electrician, always buys her flowers after a trip. Kerry changes into sweatpants while he pours her a glass of wine.
“When she comes home, she doesn’t have to work,” he says. “That’s the way I like it. She works too hard as it is.”
She met him five days before Sept. 11, at a bar where a friend took her to drown her sorrows over a parking ticket. The following Tuesday, he called to see if she was all right. Normally, she might not have gone out with him. She was happy on her own. But the attacks made her rethink everything.
Now they sit on the back patio. The night is velvety, the palms darker than the sky. A breeze drifts up from the lake. Tonight, the war is somewhere else.
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Vanessa Gezari can be reached at email@example.com.