When Cecile Beck applied to be a “stewardess” in 1959 with Pan Am, she never anticipated the decision would lead to a 60-year career in the air, a 40-year marriage and a lifetime of memories.
“It turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever been able to do,” said Cecile, who flew her last flight with Delta on Sept. 28, from Zurich to New York City.
Cecile, a Swiss-American who spoke German and French when she joined Pan Am, was drawn to an airline career after overhearing a conversation with another flight attendant about traveling the world. With family in both countries, she was encouraged to “go for it.”
Her first trip was in October 1959, flying from Lisbon to Rome to Istanbul and spending 24 hours in each city. She was captivated from the start. When Pan Am sold its trans-Atlantic routes to Delta in 1991, Cecile donned the navy blue Delta uniform overnight in the middle of a trip.
“I had a great beginning with Delta,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better profession.”
Cecile’s adventures trekking from continent to continent led to unforgettable encounters, including flying United Nations Secretary-General U Thant, Jackie Kennedy and Ella Fitzgerald. One of her favorite chance meetings was meeting Begum Ra’ana Liaqat Ali Khan, the wife of the first prime minister of Pakistan, and herself a leading figure in the Pakistan Movement for independence.
“We were flying to Paris and when we landed, she was greeted like royalty,” Cecile said. “I was so embarrassed not realizing who she was, but she told me it was the best flight she ever took because I didn’t recognize her. I’d treated her like every other passenger, not like a famous person. After I helped carry her bags, she waved back to me from the car. I felt much better after that.”
Cecile was also among the Pan Am crew members tasked with flying some of the last evacuees out of Tehran during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. “We didn’t know how dangerous that was at the time,” she said.
Another precarious encounter took place 1964, when her crew got stuck for four days in the Republic of the Congo during the Congo Crisis – a time of conflict after independence – after a maintenance issue forced her flight to divert.
“When we landed, we couldn’t find four passengers on the manifest who were listed as diabetic. I was so worried knowing they’d need insulin during the delay,” she said. “It turned out we had four diabetic gorillas in the cargo hold. It took us three hours to find a vet.”
Despite her many ventures around the world – including a personal invitation to her crew to the ballet by the Shah of Iran – no memory is as precious as meeting her husband of 40 years, Gustave. He was a lead flight attendant at Pan Am in 1961.
“We flew the same plane for 25 years,” Cecile said. “We were together on every flight.”
Gustave retired from Pan Am in 1984. He passed away in 2008.
In her 60 years, Cecile easily adjusted to the changing consumer expectations in the industry as technology and aircraft evolved.
“You have to adapt when you choose this career,” she said. “Between weather or maintenance delays, change is the norm when you’re a flight attendant and you accept it.”
Now enjoying the early days of her retirement, Cecile says she misses her colleagues and the time they’d spend together on layovers. “You might not fly with someone for two years, but you pick up right where you left off. You bond together in a different way as a crew.”
While she’s witnessed every significant event in modern aviation history, Cecile says one thing has remained the same.
“The relationship between the flight attendant and the customer,” she said. “Connecting with each other is important. You connect and learn so much more by getting to know people.”