For many of us trolley dollies, the thought of serving tea and coffee, beef or chicken and dealing with awkward passengers and randy pilots until we’re in our 80’s is something that nightmares are made of.
But for one incredible lady this was no nightmare. Iris Peterson began flying for United Airlines in 1946, at a time when the jet engine was still a mere blue-print, sex was safe and flying was dangerous. When she retired, 61 years later in 2007 aged 85, she was ranked #1 in terms of seniority.
Iris was Born in 1922, just ten years after Heinrich Kubis of Germany became the worlds first flight attendant. During the early years of flying there were no female cabin crew. Males, known as stewards, were onboard the primitive aircraft to tend to the passengers needs and for a small amount of safety related duties.
Then in 1930, a 25-year old registered nurse named Ellen Church, was hired by United Airlines. Soon, women would rapidly over take men onboard aircraft around the world, as airlines and passengers alike enjoyed the glamorous ‘air hostess’ imagery that grew throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
In 1946, a 22-year old Peterson successfully applied for the role of stewardess with United. At this time, although more and more females were applying and being hired, there were still many restrictions placed around the job – including age, gender, ethnicity and weight. Crew were not allowed to fly and be married, nor have children. They had to retire by their 30’s, as they were deemed to old by the airlines. In a still very male dominated world, conditions were tough. Peterson recognised the discrimination that existed and hated it, making it her mission to change things for the better.
During her time at United, Iris held various leadership positions in the flight attendants union and often represented her colleagues in grievances and with safety issues. Georgia Nielson, historian and retired flight attendant stated that Iris was “Often an integral part of advancing her profession through activity in her union”.
Peterson and the Association Of Flight Attendants (AFA) founder Ede Lauterbach helped conduct the industries first aircraft evacuation tests in 1952. Today this test is mandatory on all new airliners before they enter service. A full plane load of passengers have to be evacuated within 90 seconds, with only 50% of exits serviceable. These first tests led to the introduction of further regulations, requiring flight attendants onboard all commercial flights to be trained cabin safety personnel.
In 1953 she became the first official lobbyist for the Airline Stewards and Stewardesses Association. She would regularly find herself the only woman in congress halls and was often patronised by congressmen and their staff members, but Peterson never gave in.
By 1968 things were slowly changing. In the same year that crew were finally allowed to continue flying if they were married, Iris worked closely with aircraft engineers to develop safety features for the worlds first ‘Jumbo-Jets’. A total of 17 of her suggestions were implemented, including the evacuation alarm, now standard equipment on aircraft worldwide.
In a tribute by the AFA after her retirement, it was said that Peterson and her peers helped to ‘Destroy discriminatory practices, advancing the rights of women and uprooting gender discrimination’.
United AFA President Greg Davidowitch commented “There’s no way to celebrate the career of this phenomenal woman without recognising the extraordinary achievements she was part of fighting for throughout her career. Iris led the way in shaping the career we are each so proud to call our own. Iris has been a mentor to all of us who have followed in her steps. She has spent a lifetime committed to her airline and to improving the profession she has loved for six decades. As her fellow crew members, we have been lucky to receive her guidance for 60 years. Iris is an intensely private person, but flight attendants everywhere are the beneficiaries of her dedication and commitment to our profession. She is truly one in a million”
In an extremely rare interview before her retirement, Peterson was asked when she would finally hang up her wings? To which she instantly replied “When my body tells me it’s time!”.
For six decades Iris Peterson flew as cabin crew. During this time she witnessed enormous changes within the industry she loved, many of which she helped to implement. She made aircraft safer and destroyed discrimination for the crew community. She watched great airlines come and go, witnessed the horrifying events of 9/11 and made memories for the many millions of passengers she tended to over her 61 years.
And it for that reason that Iris Peterson joins our Angels Of The Sky.
For more incredible tales of the heroes and heroines of our industry head over to our ‘Angels Of The Sky’ section by clicking HERE
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