Airline veteran closing out five decades in the sky




Posted on October 29, 2012 at 11:19 PM

Updated Tuesday, Oct 30 at 2:11 AM

A lifetime of memories and 22 million miles in the sky — Clelia Powers has seen it all.

"I'm 74, and I'm beginning to ache, which has never happened," she said. "The flying takes its toll."

Powers just celebrated 50 years as a flight attendant, and now she's ready to retire her wings.

"I am thankful that American [Airlines] gave me what I wasn't expecting," she said.

Powers lives in Connecticut, but her dream of traveling the world started in her hometown in McAllen.

"I wanted to learn more about other cultures — that was the most important thing," she said.

Her ticket out of McAllen came at the age of 24. Powers boarded a bus to New York to attend stewardess school at Pan American Airways. She had delayed submitting her application for years.

Powers tried college and cosmetology, but she finally decided to take a chance.

"Once I got on the bus, I thought maybe I should go back and not leave," she said. "But that was a split-second, and I never looked back."

It was the 60s, the glamorous days of flying. Passengers dressed to impress, and cocktail bars filled the cabin.

The job helped Powers with her Spanish. She got better. She also got a few tips in bartending.

She remembered her first mistake in the galley: Putting a cherry in a martini and handing it to a passenger. But, she told us, she learned a very important lesson that day.

"This woman never said anything to me; she didn't want to embarrass me," Powers remembered. "When we have the power over someone... that was an important lesson. I never forgot her."

The airlines at the time also demanded a certain "look" from their flight attendants. During Powers' six-month review at Pan Am, her supervisor asked her to cut her hair.

"As a former hairdresser, I said, 'I really think I know what's better for me,'" she said. "Wrong answer. Wrong answer. Within two days, I was out. I was devastated. I cried the whole day."

She didn't cry for long. Powers landed at Trans-Caribbean Airlines, which later merged with American Airlines where, she has been for most of her long career.

Through those five decades, she has only faced two close calls in the air, and her list of unpleasant passengers is surprisingly short.

"Some of them I can send to the moon," she said. "But most of them, 'You are in my house when you come into the airplane. You are in my living room. That's the way I like to treat you.'"

Powers makes about four trips a month, mostly to Japan, China and Argentina. She has a son who she gets to visit on some of her flights to China.

Her extraordinary ride is now coming to an end, but she knows that more adventures await. She hopes to open her own business after retirement.

"I still have things I want to do," Powers said. "Life doesn't stop."

When it does end, she wants to be home in McAllen where her dreams took off. The roar of the planes will be close by.

"I'm going to be buried next to the [McAllen] airport," she said. "There's a little cemetery there, and I love it."