Flying the Friendly Skies: Ron Akana at 83
It’s not everyone who gets to spend 63 years doing the same job, with the same company, unless they’re self- or family-employed. I would guess that, over the span of the typical 63 year career, someone would be employed by at least ten outfits. Not that there’s anything typical about a 63 year career to begin with. This, of course, is subject to change. Even with my aging eyes, if I squint I can foresee a future economy in which 85 year olds, working out of necessity if not the desire to stay active and engaged, provide “ancient-care” to people in their 100’s. Which, come to think of it, would beat Walmart greeter. Which, come to think of it, will no doubt be smartly automated, so that when you walk through the doors a hologram will greet you by name and hover with you during your Walmart stay, helping push your smartcart to the aisles where you’ll find the stuff you need that can’t be virtualized or digitized – like paper towels – or you’ll find the stuff your peers, or opinion leaders, or the powers at Bentonville, want you to buy – like garden elves.
But there is someone who has happily and willingly stayed on the job for 63 years. That someone is Ron Akana, and he’s been flying the friendly skies of United since 1949. Not as a pilot – yikes: an 83 year-old pilot would scare me just a bit. But as a steward.
I had thought that stewards were a relatively recent phenomenon, coming on about the same time as the airlines were no longer able to forcibly retire a stew when she turned 30, got married, or gained an ounce. But I’m obviously wrong in dating the arrival of stewards on the flight scene to the moment when I first encountered a surly, slightly zaftig, non-husband hunting, over 40 stewardess who didn’t really care that I’d just found a full air sickness bag in the seat pocket.
Mr. Anaka joined United when they were recruiting Hawaiian natives to staff their new flights from the mainland to Hawaii.
He showed up to apply wearing an Aloha shirt, and was one of eight young men (out of 400) to make the cut.
Ah, for the good old days of flying:
In his early years, impeccably dressed passengers were served seafood salad and congregated at the cocktail bar on board…Seats [on the Stratocruiser to Hawaii] were all first class, with four bunk beds up front and a private stateroom in the back with its own beds and bathroom. A circular staircase led to a lower-deck cocktail lounge, and flight attendants prepared hot meals for the 52 to 54 people on board.
Forget the bunk beds, the hot meals, and the cocktail lounge. It would be fun just to get on a flight where the passengers were “impeccably dressed.”
Of course the downside would be that they’d all be smoking.
“Impeccably dressed” wasn’t just for flying, by the way. When my family took the train to Chicago in the 1950’s, we’d dress as if we were going to church – my father in a suit, my brothers in sport coats and ties, my mother wearing a hat, and my sister and I in patent leather shoes, white gloves, and dresses. One time, I recall how envious I was of the two little girls – about the ages of my sister Kath and I – who were traveling in the same car as we were, only they were wearing shorts. I remember thinking that they must be Protestants. How else to account for the moral failure of not wearing church clothes during an uncomfortable overnight train ride?
During his years with United, Mr. Akana has logged 20 million miles. He also met his wife, a fellow stew, through work. Once they were married, she had to retire – no married gals need apply. Their daughter took up the family trade. She’s been a United flight attendant for 22 years.
Over time, Mr. Akana got to serve a lot of celebs. The cast of From Here to Eternity flew with him on the way to their film location in Hawaii. He got to make up a bed for Deborah Kerr, and serve Burt Lancaster 12 or 13 martinis. After which Lancaster got behind the bar to give Mr. Akana a hand, appearing both sober (“’as if he hadn’t had one’”) and, one assumes, impeccably dressed.
Red Skelton was also on one of his flights. Possibly the least funny comedian in an era during which he had plenty of competition, Skelton “mimicked the entire routine” while Mr. Akana demo’d the use of the life vest. (And may God bleth.)
Mr. Akana is just part of the graying of the flight attendants. Forget the sweet young things that would have served martinis to Don Draper. Over 40% of the flight attendants in the U.S. are 50 or older. Mr. Akana is not the oldest sky king, however. Robert Reardon, at 87, is still working as a flight attendant for Delta, where he’s done the how-to-put-on-a-life-vest routine since 1951. (If you’re wondering where all the old lady flight attendants are, you must keep in mind that, until the practice outlawed in the 1960’s, stewardesses had to retire at the age of 32. There was obviously no such stipulation for men. (What would Lilly Ledbetter say to that?))
Mr. Akana’s schedule is not that intense. With his seniority, he only has to make three trips to Hawaii each month from his home base in Denver.
I know that 99.9999% of the time, the flight attendant doesn’t have to do anything more onerous than set down trays and give out headsets. But if there were some emergency, I’m not so sure that I’d want an 83 (or an 87) year old trying to pop open the emergency door and help passengers onto the slide.
Mr. Akana acknowledges that he is starting to slow down a bit. “We get an average of four or five wheelchairs a trip,” said Mr. Akana, who underwent knee replacement surgery last year. “I know our bones fail; I’m beginning to feel it myself. Most of the people I help, I’m older than them.”
Congratulations to Mr. Akana (and Mr. Reardon, too) on their career longevity. I hope I’m still able to do something (very part time) that I enjoy when I’m 83 (or 87). Nonetheless, just in case the aircraft has to make an emergency landing, I’d just as soon have a robust and surly 50 year old helping me off the plane.
Source: NY Times.