Careers 2.0: Profiles in Career Change

From Retiree (Briefly) to Flight Attendant

Retirement gave Ronwyn Ingraham the chance to indulge her youthful dream of becoming a flight attendant.

Ronwyn Ingraham is not one to stay put. After a 31-year career as the head of corporate fundraising for the nonprofit humanitarian organization CARE, she took early retirement in 1996. After just three months of her new lifestyle, recalls the self-described gypsy, “it was time to get back to work.” Now in her 70s, Ingraham is still flying high in her second career as a flight attendant for United Airlines. “It’s good to have a project,” she says.

Ingraham attended an open house for United in January 1997, and she was called back to start her preparations in May of that year. “It takes a while for the wheels to roll along,” she says, “but after three interviews, I started training.” Seven weeks of grueling, “pressure cooker” classes and “tight quarters” ensued before she was able to join the ranks of the approximately 100,000 U.S. flight attendants.

Though historically flight attendants were mostly young women, in the last 30 years, age-discrimination laws, layoffs of more junior personnel and people working longer to cover the costs of retirement have driven the median age of flights attendants in the United States up from 30 to 44, according to a report this month by two professors at Texas A&M University. During the same period, the proportion of flight attendants over the age of 44 has risen from 6% to 50%. Ingraham says the oldest flight attendant she knows who is still flying—and has no plans to retire—is 82.

Wanderlust began early for Ingraham, who says her first word was “go.”

Too Tall the First Time

“My mother had to tie me to the clotheslines, or I’d be out of there,” says the widow and grandmother. She recalls that she considered becoming a flight attendant in the 1950s, when they were known as stewardesses or air hostesses. It was also a time when the airlines had weigh-ins, forced married “stews” to retire and imposed maximum height requirements. Ingraham, who was a runner-up in the Miss Canada pageant, was taller than the airlines’ 5’7” maximum height by three-quarters of an inch.

Instead, the statuesque brunette studied at and graduated from Queens University in Ontario, Canada, and did some acting. In her television debut, Ingraham played a gorilla on the CBC weekly broadcast, “Shuster & Wayne,” hosted by Canadian comedy pioneers Frank Shuster and Johnny Wayne. Eventually Ingraham moved to the United States with her now late ex-husband and went on to successfully juggle her career in fundraising while raising four children.

Despite what many people might think, flight attendants are neither glorified cocktail servers nor in-flight baggage handlers. Their most important duty is keeping travelers safe and sound from the time they board until they finally disembark. Depending on the size of the “equipment,” as the planes are called by flight crews, flight attendants board to prepare for takeoff from 15 minutes to an hour before passengers and stay 30 minutes after the flight ends. They must also obtain annual recertification for emergency safety training, CPR, AED (automatic electric defibrillator) and door handling.

Free Travel and Flexible Schedules

Although flight attendants’ salaries are hardly impressive—starting under $20,000 with a median of approximately $50,000—the benefits include free travel for themselves and their immediate family, and flexible schedules. “And when you’re finished work, you don’t have to worry about it,” Ingraham adds. All flight attendants must bid for schedules, and with more seniority comes the opportunity to “pick up” the most desired international destinations. As she is still a junior flight attendant, Ingraham has flown most all of her carrier’s domestic routes. She has also picked up a number of international flights, traveling to most European destinations, including Brussels, Munich, Paris and Rome.

Ten years ago, Ingraham bought and started to renovate a second home in the south of France. Her new career allows her to spend more of her leisure time there, gardening, reading and entertaining family and friends. Her monthly flight hours allow her nine weeks of vacation a year. “I enjoy the travel, the perks, the flexibility—and the job itself,” says the eager 12-year veteran.