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lip lit: up in the air

I can only vaguely remember the first time I flew on a plane. I had just turned five, and I was flying to Darwin with my Mum and my brother. I remember being so excited about flying on a plane for the very first time, but that’s about it. I can’t remember anything of the flight itself. Since then, I’ve travelled a number of times on planes, yet none of my flights were anything like the seeming luxury of the flights Pan Am Stewardess Betty Riegel worked on in the 1960s. In her memoir, Riegel relives the wonder of this newfangled transport called air travel. Flying on a plane was considered the height of luxury and it was so expensive that only the wealthy could afford to indulge in such a thing. Pan Am was the world’s luxury airline, and working as a stewardess for Pan Am came with a status equivalent to that of movie stars and celebrities. It was a life Betty Riegel dreamed about but never imagined would come to fruition, given her humble start growing up in a working class family in London.

Riegel’s memoir begins when she is three years old, in the middle of a night-time air raid on London. For the first six years of her life, she thought bombs dropping and running to air raid shelters for her life was normal. Then the war ended, and the father she’d never met returned from battle, and life continued on with what her parents knew as normal. Like most young girls in those days, Riegel left school was she was sixteen and took a job as a typist, but even then she knew she didn’t simply want a job until she met a man and got married. Riegel wanted to see the world; she wanted to travel and, more importantly, she wanted a career. After spending a summer working as a stewardess flying on planes across the English Channel, Riegel saw an ad in the paper announcing that Pan Am were coming to London to recruit some British girls to work as stewardesses for the airline.

Riegel’s life is turned upside down when she is accepted, and she had what many women could only dream of in the sixties: a career. I really admired the way Riegel was determined to hang on to her career and her independence for as long as she could, even once she got married. Her stories of flying for this luxurious airline (which declared bankruptcy in 1990) are full of colour and wonderful characters, and it is really eye-opening to see just how much airlines have changed in the last fifty years. For example, the flight’s crew could have anywhere up to a week at their destination, depending on how often the airline travelled there. The meals were prepared from scratch on the plane; even things such as scrambled eggs, which had to be prepared in an oven, as the planes had no stove top.

The book is an interesting read, and Riegel clearly had some wonderful experiences flying with the airline, but, for me, the book wasn’t anything more than interesting. While the characters were vibrant, I didn’t feel emotionally invested in any of them. Riegel did work her way up from very little to work for the world’s top airline at the time, but after that, she worked hard, and lived well. It’s not that I think that something traumatic or devastating should have happened in Riegel’s life to validate her story; but the climax of this tale seemed to be Riegel getting the job with Pan Am, which occurs early in the book, and after that, the story plateaus. I wanted more emotional investment in the story; more of the ups and downs of Riegel’s career in more detail, instead of the many tiny snippets she teases the reader with.

Reading Up in the Air is like visiting a completely different world. In days gone by, air travel was exciting, luxurious and reserved for only the very wealthy. Customer service and engagement with passengers was everything, and the only way to experience another country and culture was to actually visit the place. The flight to the destination was as much a part of the holiday and experience as landing at the destination itself.

Up in the Air is published by Simon & Schuster.

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