Before the pandemic, Nelson was already one of the most visible leaders in the U.S. labor movement—a surprising achievement, considering that her union is relatively small. (The American Federation of Teachers, with 1.7 million members, is nearly thirty-five times the size of the A.F.A.; the Teamsters, with 1.2 million, is about twenty-five times the size.) The pandemic raised Nelson’s profile, bringing new attention to her and the A.F.A., as the working conditions of her union’s members worsened. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, a record seven thousand-plus “unruly passenger” incidents have occurred on airplanes since the start of 2021, although the term “unruly” doesn’t begin to capture the severity of some of this behavior, which has led to headlines like “Video Shows Assault of Southwest Flight Attendant Who Lost 2 Teeth*.*”
Nelson has spoken out forcefully against passengers “using flight attendants as punching bags.” She has urged Congress to pass a bill that would put passengers convicted of assault on a no-fly list, and she has advocated for ending the sale of to-go drinks at airport bars, since unruly passengers are often intoxicated. These efforts mark the latest chapter in her union’s eight-decade battle to improve the working conditions of its members. By now, however, the promise that drew Nelson and her colleagues to this profession years ago—the idea that it offered autonomy and a chance to see the world—has been overshadowed by the reality that airplanes have become an increasingly stressful place to work.
In the nineteen-sixties, flight attendants were known as stewardesses—the title changed in the seventies—and when they pushed the beverage cart down the aisle they could barely see where they were going. “From the seat level to the ceiling was just pure smoke,” Diane Tucker, a flight attendant who has worked for United since 1968, recalled. After the plane took off, the sound of passengers lighting up filled the cabin. And the airlines encouraged the smoking. “We actually put little packets of cigarettes on the trays when we served people,” Tucker said. “Right next to the coffee cup.” Flying was different in other ways, too. There were virtually no female passengers in first class, Tucker said, and the menu was better. “We would slice roast beef for the people in first class,” she said. “We had gourmet food in the back as well.”
In those years, nobody could make a career out of being a stewardess. Airlines had age limits: Tucker, who was hired at the age of twenty, had to agree to quit when she turned thirty-two. Stewardesses were prohibited from marrying, and there were strict rules dictating how they could look, which included bans on braces and hair dye, and a requirement that stewardesses wear nail polish. Tucker started every workday by hiking her skirt so that an older woman, known as an “appearance supervisor,” could peer underneath. “We lifted our skirt and showed our girdle,” Tucker said. “They didn’t ask me whether I had my manual or my flashlight, or whether I had enough money to get a taxi if I needed it—they just wanted to know if I had my girdle on.”
Airlines often exploited the looks of their stewardesses as a marketing strategy. One of the most egregious examples was a National Airlines ad campaign that featured a young stewardess and a not so subtle tagline: “I’m Cheryl. Fly Me.” Many airlines limited how much stewardesses could weigh, and some women took diet pills or starved themselves to avoid losing their jobs. “If there was any suspicion that you didn’t look exactly the way the appearance supervisor thought you should look, she would have you hop on the scale in front of everybody,” Tucker said. “If you were ten pounds over what your maximum was, they would remove you from your flight.”
In 1972, Sandie Hendrix, a stewardess at United, was fired after weighing in at a hundred and twenty-seven pounds. (Hendrix was five feet two, and the limit for her height was a hundred and eighteen pounds.) Her story made the national news, but not everyone was on her side: one nationally syndicated columnist, writing about the possible end of the airlines’ weight rules, bemoaned a future in which “human hippos start handing out the trays.” Stewardesses fought against the weight limits, but they stayed in place at many airlines for years; at United, they were phased out in the early nineties—not long before Sara Nelson was hired.
Nelson grew up in Corvallis, a small town in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where she was raised in a family of Christian Scientists. Her father worked for a lumber mill; her mother was a music teacher in the local public schools, and she also had a successful singing-telegram business on the side. (When Nelson first told me about this, she paused in the middle of the story and began singing: “Valentine, with a little kiss / You fill me with so much bliss . . .”) Nelson remembers telegram customers calling at all hours and belly dancers—who were hired to deliver telegrams known as Belly Tellys—stopping by the family’s house to pick up their paychecks.
After high school, Nelson went to Principia College, a small liberal-arts school founded by a Christian Scientist, in southwestern Illinois. Nelson was “so bubbly” and “very, very passionate about everything,” Caviness, her best friend, recalled. Nelson had grown up singing in a children’s choir that her mother founded, and at Principia she starred as Maria in a production of “West Side Story.” “Everyone was drawn to her,” Caviness said. “She had that vibrant, acting kind of personality, where she’s just onstage, but in the best of ways.” At sports events, she would always emphatically root for the school’s team. “Everyone would turn and smile because they could hear her—this little person, and she would have this super-booming voice,” Caviness said.
By the time Nelson began working for United, the workplace culture had improved. There were no more age limits or bans on getting married. But United did measure Nelson’s height—five feet five, which the airline deemed acceptable—and during her training, she said, there was a “makeup day,” when “men got the day off and women had to go learn how to put makeup on.” Meanwhile, sexism in the cabin had persisted. One day, not long after Nelson started the job, a male passenger approached her from behind while she was standing alone in the galley. “He ran his hand along the outside of my hip and right down almost around my rear end and said, ‘What, no girdle?’ ” she recalled. “ ‘How can you look this good in your uniform without a girdle?’ ” She was stunned. “No one had ever warned me something like that might happen.” At the time, flight attendants had little recourse in such situations. “So you try to just protect yourself and then tell the rest of your crew, ‘Hey, watch out for Handsy in 5-F,’ ” she said.
There were other downsides to the job, like the pay. Nelson recalls earning about twenty-one thousand dollars in her first year; to feed herself, she sometimes relied on airplane food. The job was also physically exhausting. Nelson’s workplace was often a Boeing 757, though sometimes a 727 or a 737, and she soon learned the distinctions between each aircraft. The 757 held so many passengers that a flight attendant could easily run out of room in her cart for all the garbage when picking up trays after a meal. The 727, however, did not have carts at all. “You had to hand-deliver every single meal,” she said, adding that some of her co-workers, who wore pedometers, reported walking ten miles during a single shift. Nelson’s least favorite plane was the 737-200, an early version of the 737. Flight attendants referred to it as the Nasty, Nelson remembered, because the galley was so tiny that the trash piled up and the stench lingered.
Initially, Nelson wasn’t sure how long she would remain a flight attendant. But, once she started working for United, her social life became defined largely by the job. This was in part a matter of scheduling. “It’s hard to relate to other people with nine-to-five jobs,” she said. There was also the free air travel, which broadened the list of possible excursions. “You would say, ‘Hey, want to fly to L.A. tonight? “Titanic” is playing. Let’s go have dinner and a movie,’ ” Nelson said. In 1998, she married a fellow flight attendant, and for a time went by her married name, Sara Dela Cruz. (They divorced a few years later, and she has since remarried.)
She also devoted a lot of time to union work. By 2001, she was the vice-president of her local council, and on September 11th she was scheduled to attend a union training event in Chicago. She took an overnight flight from the West Coast, landing at around 5:30 a.m. that day at O’Hare Airport, and then went straight to the nearby Hilton Hotel. She was a regular at the hotel’s fitness center—she ran on a treadmill and lifted weights whenever she had a layover in Chicago—and that morning she asked a worker she knew if she could use a massage table to take a nap.
She dozed until shortly before 8 a.m. Chicago time, when a hotel employee woke her to tell her the news: an airplane had just flown into one of the Twin Towers. Nelson, still groggy, left the room and found a TV—and watched as another plane crashed into the second tower. She didn’t know it at the time, but that second plane was United Flight 175, which had taken off about an hour earlier from Boston. It was a flight that she had worked in the past, and she knew all the crew members on board.
Recently, I spoke with Nelson on the phone about that day. She is known for being open with her emotions, occasionally getting choked up during public appearances, and soon I could hear her sobbing on the other end of the line. I thought that she might try to change the subject or cut the call short, but instead she cried and talked for the next four minutes. She told me about Amy King and Michael Tarrou, two flight attendants who had been dating for more than two years and who were working together that day. She recalled Robert Fangman, a rookie whom she had met on his first day when she did a union presentation for new hires. And she mentioned two gate agents who happened to take Flight 175: Marianne MacFarlane and Jesus Sanchez. “They were two of the gate agents who would pick up all the overtime. They were there all the time. They were so much fun,” she said. “I used to joke that every gate leads to Jesus, because he would see me off and close the door, and when I would come back to Boston he would be there to open it.”