When Carole DiSalvo began working as an American Airlines Inc. stewardess, she thought she might stay a couple of years.
“I was 20 when I went with American,” DiSalvo recalled. “And two years was truly the maximum. You couldn’t be married. Back then, people were getting married a lot younger than they are now. So two years was truly about the maximum that you would expect to fly. Never would you expect to go five years or 10 years.”
More than 54 years later, DiSalvo, 75, has grounded herself.
She worked her last assignments in mid-January, on a flight from Chicago to Shanghai, and then a flight back to Chicago. Last week, she ended a career that touched seven decades, 11 U.S. presidential administrations, numerous management changes, industry deregulation and the economic turbulence that has shaken the industry.
She arrived at American a few months before its first jet, the Boeing 707, began service. She began work more than two years before American’s current chairman and chief executive, Tom Horton, was born.
She retires as American’s most senior flight attendant on active duty. A woman hired a month before her in 1958 retired in December but had been on medical leave and had not been flying.
DiSalvo’s last official duties were Jan. 28, when she spoke to American’s first class of new-hire flight attendants in 12 years, a group that gave her a standing ovation after her presentation. The following day, she talked to The Dallas Morning News about her career.
DiSalvo was working as a secretary at Continental Can Co. in 1958 when her boss suggested that she might like to work as an airline stewardess.
The idea appealed to her; she didn’t like the daily commute to her downtown Chicago job, nor did she see herself as a 9-to-5 person. Still, she wonders whether her boss was subtly telling her to go get another job.
Even after she and her husband, Joe, a patent attorney, adopted the first of two children more than 27 years ago, DiSalvo kept flying, knowing she could handle children and a career.
As airline veterans do, DiSalvo has noted changes in the industry.
“The Boeing 747 was exciting because of the upper deck and the staircase and we had three different galleys. But from a flight attendant viewpoint, it was very impersonal. Half the time, you never saw the other flight attendants in the middle and in the back,” she said.
The 747 had a spiral staircase leading to its upper deck, DiSalvo recalled. “We would put liquor out, actual fifths of liquor, and passengers would help themselves. We’d put out cheese and crackers. Very, very elegant.
“And sometimes, some of those passengers had difficulties coming down that staircase,” she said.