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Bette Nash, the world's longest-serving flight attendant, dies at 88

American Airlines flight attendant Bette Nash greets passengers disembarking from her daily return flight to Boston at Reagan Washington Airport in 2017, at age 81. She died earlier this month.
Eric Baradat
AFP via Getty Images
American Airlines flight attendant Bette Nash greets passengers disembarking from her daily return flight to Boston at Reagan Washington Airport in 2017, at age 81. She died earlier this month.

The aviation world is mourning Bette Nash, a D.C.-based flight attendant who died earlier this month after spending nearly seven decades serving passengers in the skies — and making history along the way.

Nash began her career with now-defunct Eastern Airlines at age 21 in 1957, when Dwight Eisenhower was president, flights between New York and D.C. cost $12 and “stewardesses,” as they were called, served lobster on platters and passed out cigarettes on board.

The industry changed drastically during Nash’s tenure, especially with the introduction of technology (no more handwritten tickets, for example). American Airlines eventually took over some of Eastern's routes.

But, as she said at a celebration of her 60 years of service in 2017, the joys of the job remained.

“My favorite part of flying over the years has been greeting my passengers as they board and deplane,” Nash said at the time. “People really are fascinating and it’s truly been a joy.”

Nash became an increasingly recognizable fixture on American Airlines flights in recent years — particularly on shuttle flights between Washington and Boston, which the company affectionately nicknamed “the Nash-Dash.” She preferred that route because it enabled her to spend time caring for her son, who has Down syndrome.

Nash earned the Guinness World Record for longest-serving flight attendant in 2022, by which point she had been working for more than 64 years.

And she never officially retired, according to ABC News. It reports she died in hospice care at age 88, following a recent breast cancer diagnosis.

American Airlines confirmed her death in a statement over the weekend. It called her “a legend at American and throughout the industry, inspiring generations of flight attendants.”

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants also mourned Nash’s passing, saying she “touched countless lives with her warmth, dedication and unparalleled service” throughout her remarkable career.

“Her passion for flying and her commitment to her passengers were truly inspiring,” continued the union, which represents thousands of American Airlines flight attendants. “Bette’s legacy will forever be remembered in the aviation community and by all who had the privilege of knowing her.”

Highlights from a historic career

A late-1950s photo of Nash as an Eastern Airlines stewardess.
/ James M. Thresher / TWP
James M. Thresher / TWP
A late-1950s photo of Nash as an Eastern Airlines stewardess.

Nash was inspired to become a flight attendant from her first time on a plane as a teenager, flying from Washington to Dayton, Ohio.

She “fell in love with ‘the spiffy appearances and gracious manners of the crew members,’ ” according to American Airlines, and followed suit a few years later.

At the start of her career, in the late 1950s, passengers bought life insurance at an airport vending machine and paid their airfare on board, according to ABC affiliate WJLA.

Flight attendants had to wear gloves — a coworker remembered Nash would always pack two pairs, in case one got dirty — and weigh in before shifts.

“It used to be horrible,” Nash told WJLA in 2017. “You put on a few pounds and you had to keep weighing yourself, and then if you stayed that way, they would take ya off the payroll!”

Over the years, Nash served many famous passengers — including Jackie Kennedy, according to American Airlines. But she said her most memorable encounter wasn’t with a big-name celebrity.

In a 2019 interview with the travel site The Points Guy, Nash recalled an instance decades ago — before the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act — when a passenger with disabilities was left behind at the gate during boarding as the crew debated what to do. She said she helped him board and fed him during the flight, as he didn’t have use of his hands.

American Airlines celebrated Nash’s “diamond jubilee” in 2017 at a ceremony at her home base of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, just outside D.C.

The company gave her a pair of diamond earrings to mark her 60th work anniversary and donated $10,000 to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church Food Bank, a cause it said she regularly supported.

Nash said at the time that she didn’t plan to hang up her wings anytime soon.

“As long as I have my health and I’m able, why not work,” she said. “It’s still fun.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.

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