‘Hello Ursula, Glad to have you on board with us. Hope you ride often.’ Signed by F.R. Dixon, of Trans Canada Flight 534-7 on Feb. 7, 1954 (Courtesy of Ursula Maxwell-Lewis)

TRAVEL: ‘Pod ‘n me?’ Zurich-bound airline reflections

Former airline hostess looks back on 60 years in the air

By Ursula Maxwell-Lewis

Cloverdale Reporter

Air Canada has launched a new non-stop Vancouver-Zurich Boeing 787 Dreamliner summer service.

Testing it out (in collaboration with Swiss Tourism), I’m delighted to find myself upgraded to Signature Service at the departure gate.

Soon I’m comfortably cocooned in a “pod,” a private seating compartments in what was formerly called International Business Class. My seat reclines into a flatbed complete with a lumbar massager. I check the seat gadgets, plug in the complimentary noise reducing headset and accidentally crank the volume up to a zillion decibels. Unpacking the padded seat cover and blanket, I assess the free movie schedule and trust, while sipping my complimentary pre-flight sparkling wine, that I give the mistaken impression that I never travel any other way.

Pod walls restrict me from my pedestrian practice of gawking at fellow passengers, speculating on who’s who and what has prompted their journeys. My unexpected solitude inspires me to reflect on the many less salubrious cabins in which I’ve thundered around the globe.

My first flight was on board a Trans Canada Airlines (now Air Canada) Canadair North Star.

Mom and I dressed for the trip. She in a svelte black suit and stilettos. Me (aged almost 6) in tidy waist-length pigtails, a Stewart tartan kilt, jumper, navy coat and black lace-ups.

I have a murky memory of an en-route snowy February overnight in a Reykjavik military hanger makeshift dormitory. We were delayed and I convinced that Santa Claus must be in the vicinity. At least he’d get the memo that I’d left Scotland.

Just before my 12th birthday I’d moaned so much about moving from Clarkson (Mississauga) to Toronto that my parents sent me back (unaccompanied) to my grandmother in Ayrshire, Scotland on board a Lockheed Super Constellation via Gander. My passport picture indicates I’d unsuccessfully attempted to trim my bangs, wore an oatmeal coloured coat, and looked like a stunned refugee. My forgiving family claimed me on arrival anyway.

Like all 1950s youngsters I had an autograph book. Recently it surfaced among my souvenirs. A Captain Bowden kindly noted flight details with a reminder to “come back to Canada one day.” Little did we know that I would, and that the journey would include working for Air Canada at London, Heathrow, as well as head office in Montreal.

The Malawi, Zambian and Zimbabwean Independence celebrations signaled the break up of what, until then, had been the Central African Republic. Maxwell-Lewis flew similar VIP flights to Nairobi for Kenyan Independence celebrations.
The Malawi, Zambian and Zimbabwean Independence celebrations signaled the break up of what, until then, had been the Central African Republic. Maxwell-Lewis flew similar VIP flights to Nairobi for Kenyan Independence celebrations.

Courtesy of Ursula Maxwell-Lewis

By year end mother returned to Scotland and carted me (reluctantly) off on Her Majesty’s Motor Vessel Dominion Monarch to sunny South Africa. Graduation and a career in journalism ensued. Fate, however, lured me back to aviation — this time as an air hostess with Central African Airways. There isn’t enough space here to tell those tales, but suddenly life revolved around Douglas DC3s, Viscounts, a leased Alitalia DC6, emerging African political VIPs, Africa’s fluid borders — and sick bags.

The DC6 was used for charters from Salisbury/Harare via Entebbe and Benghazi to London. Occasionally, it surprised us by shutting down its air conditioning and forcing unscheduled layovers in exotic places such as Addis Ababa, or Malta.

Between the DC6 washrooms was a curtain camouflaging a fuselage hold, in which lurked a double mattress. Parked in my current comfy pod I smile at the memory of those almost impossible to believe days. Heaven knows what the history of that DC6 mattress was, but we CAA air hostesses thankfully took our sleep breaks on it at 32,000 ft. The reward? A minimum of at least one week’s all-expenses-paid layovers in London.

Today’s flight attendants tend to have 24-hour layovers, and their contracts — unlike ours — don’t require that they retire at 32, when they get married, or that they adhere to weight and height specifications.

My gin and tonic, cheeses, beef tenderloin and the rest of my selected in-flight meal arrives as we reach cruising altitude. That 1954 TCA captain was prophetic. I do “ride often” and have good reason to value my 9 ½ hours of Air Canada Dreamliner comfort before landing in Zurich with my trusty Swiss Travel Pass (First Class!) ready for more adventures.

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a Surrey-based journalist and photographer. Contact her at utravel@shaw.ca



editor@cloverdalereporter.com

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