When passengers board United Airlines’ flight to Guam, one of the flight attendants likely to be welcoming them is Trudy Schandler Wong.
Wong has served millions of cups of coffee and soothed hundreds of harried travelers as a United Airlines flight attendant for the last 50 years.
The 71-year-old Manoa resident says she is not ready to give up flying any time soon. United does not have a mandatory retirement age. By company rules she can remain on the job until she is no longer able to handle the duties.
Wong says she hopes to know when that time comes. “I don’t want to board the plane and hear the crew say, ʻOh no. Not Trudy again.”
Wong keeps a kosher home in Manoa Valley with her husband, Alvin Kuo Wong, whom The New York Times in 2011 selected as “The Happiest Man in America,” based on a composite from a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.
The semi-retired Alvin Wong is the founder of two health care management businesses. He converted to Judaism after he and Trudy married 41 years ago.
Wong says she applied for her job on a dare in 1966 when she was 20 years old and a senior at the University of North Carolina in her hometown of Asheville. She had just recovered from a bout of mononucleosis at home and was about to go back to school.
“My father saw an ad in the newspaper saying that United was hiring stewardesses. He double dared me to go down to apply. He was in the Army but he admired pilots and had always wanted to fly. I think the job intrigued him more than it did me,” she said.
While she was in the reception room waiting for her turn to be interviewed, Wong thumbed through a copy of company magazine, the Mainliner, and noticed in one of the articles two photos of flight attendants for other airlines. One was the daughter of the president of United and the other was the daughter of United’s CEO.
“I said to the other women in the room, ‘Hey look at this. Maybe we should get out of here now. United is so bad that even the president’s daughter doesn’t want to work here.’ Then, I was called in for my interview. The recruiter apparently had heard what I said out in the waiting room. He called me ‘the troublemaker.’
But she got the job, one of two openings out of 56 applicants.
“I asked him why. He said, ʻYou were out there in a room full of strangers and within minutes you had them all talking to each other. You are the kind of person we want.’”
Being a stewardess was considered such a glamorous job then that three newspapers in her hometown of Asheville wrote feature articles about her work.
Wong says she’d planned to work for United for only six months until she could go back to UNC to finish her degree. In 1970, she took a leave from United to go back to school to get her bachelor’s degree and work as a “weather girl” for WLOS- TV News, the ABC News affiliate in Asheville.
In 1971, Wong returned to United where has worked ever since.
“There were not a plethora of Jewish girls flying when I started. Passengers used to say to me, ‘What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing this,’” says Wong.
“We flew on DC-6 propeller planes with 46 passengers. We served cocktails and dinner at no cost to passengers. The whole plane was first class,” she says.
“People dressed up to fly. Ladies wore hats and gloves and men wore suits. Now the passengers look like they are flying in their pajamas.”
Next she flew on Caravelles, the French-made, two engine jets with 64 seats, again all first class.
“We put white tablecloths on each passenger’s tray. One of the flights from Chicago to New York was for men only. After dinner, we would pass out cigars. And at the end of the flight, we gave each male passenger a bottle of perfume to take home to his wife.”
Most requirements for female flight attendants back then would be illegal today.
Wong says, “You couldn’t be married. If you became pregnant and wanted to keep flying, it was recommended that you go to a home for unwed mothers to have your child and then give it up for adoption. You couldn’t pierce your ears. You could wear only one ring. You could not pencil on your eyeliner past the corner of your eye. You had to wear a girdle. And to be sure you were wearing the girdle, there were inspections before each flight.”
Stewardesses had to be weighed before boarding the plane. Wong at 5-feet, 3 inches was supposed to weigh 121 pounds. She was prohibited once from flying after she weighed in two pounds heavier than her limit.
“The supervisor told me my arms were too fat to fly,” said Wong.
And you could not be old. All flight attendants were required to retire at age 32.
The U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited such discrimination. But it would not be until the 1970s that flight attendants after strikes, protest campaigns and Title VII lawsuits prevailed to end the airlines’ discriminatory practices.
Today, Wong’s flights are crowded with more than 330 passengers. The seats are smaller and the passengers are bigger. Passengers are stressed and filled with complaints.
She said previously on the flights to Guam even in economy class there would be two meals and a mid-flight treat of ice cream.
“Now we sell food and you can only buy it with a credit card. Some of the passengers don’t have credit cards. I can understand why they are frustrated.”
Flight attendant Brigitta Osterholt, who has flown with Wong for 32 years says: “She is amazing. She remembers everyone’s name in first class and business and addresses them by their name in every interaction. She makes them feel like they are in her home. She has so much energy, she goes and goes. She brings treats from home for the crew such as individual bags of popcorn or homemade cookies.”
Wong said she has been sexually harassed only once by a passenger who she says made a comment to her that was so lewd that another male passenger grabbed him and said, “How dare you talk to her like that?”
Wong doesn’t like to dwell on the harassment incident. She says she feels fortunate that the foul-mouthed passenger is the worst thing that has happened to her in 50 years of flying.
Another thing she refuses to dwell on is fear of future acts of terrorism on flights. Her friend Jason Dahl was the captain of UA Flight 93, which was hijacked by four al-Qaeda terrorists who crashed the plane into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 11, 2001. Everyone aboard was killed.
“That was a painful day. But I can’t live my life in fear. Life is too short to worry about what could happen,” Wong says. “I might be naïve but if you are constantly looking for something bad to happen. It will happen. You have to move forward and think how you can make life better for others.”
And that’s what Wong does on her time off: work as a volunteer to improve life in Hawaii. Her schedule gives her blocks of free time between flights to do volunteer work and serve on community boards including the Friends of the East West Center, East West Center Foundation, Jewish Community Service of Hawaii and the Junior League Sustaining Members Group.
She also tries to improve life for some of her passengers by inviting them to her home for breakfast or taking them out to favorite restaurants such as Nico’s or the Highway Inn.
“Al used to say he never knew who we were having over for brunch or inviting out to dinner,” she says. “It is just fun to introduce passengers to the Hawaii we love.”
“Al always says that I don’t look at the world as filled with strangers but rather friends I have yet to meet.”