WATCH: Meet Marion Fernandes, who has been a flight attendant for almost 50 years

Marion Fernandes has been a flight attendant for almost 50 years.
Marion Fernandes has been a flight attendant for almost 50 years.
Chanté Schatz, News24

"It's all I ever wanted to do, since I was five years old," says Marion Fernandes, who is a few months shy of having worked as a flight attendant for 50 years.

"My late father was a businessman who travelled a lot, so we used to go to Jan Smuts Airport [since renamed OR Tambo International] to see him off. In those days, there was only one terminal for both domestic and international departures and arrivals. I would watch the hostesses with their big beehive hairstyles and scarves and white gloves and they looked so smart. 

"So I asked my dad about it and he said they were so kind and they look after people. He sent us postcards from all over the world, so this sounded like the perfect job for me!"

At almost 68, Fernandes is a striking woman with a warm, affable personality. She takes great care in her appearance and looks comfortable and confident in her perfectly-fitted navy blue uniform and crisp white blouse, make-up perfectly applied, with each hair in its place.

Though she confessed to being nervous about being interviewed, she replies to each question with such confidence that it almost appears rehearsed. 

No 'Plan B'

Since deciding what she wanted to become, she began making it her life mission. 

"I took the right subjects such as geography, foreign languages, history...I took first aid, I did modelling, I did all sorts of things that I thought would prepare me for this. 

"I didn't have a Plan B, this is what I wanted to do." On occasion, she would serve her family Sunday lunches, pretending to be on an aircraft.  

Marion Fernandes

Marion Fernandes. (Chanté Schatz, News24)

Fernandes says her mum was worried when she had to start wearing glasses at 16, because, in those days, spectacled applicants were simply rejected. But she was accepted at SAA after matriculating at age 17 despite her glasses - one of many firsts Fernandes experienced during her extensive career. 

"My first international flight was to London - I was absolutely exhausted! I thought, is this what I signed up for?"

That flight took longer than they do today owing to airspace restrictions during apartheid. "So it took about 18 hours. When I got to the hotel my feet were throbbing... But once you realise what is expected you take things in your stride I then just loved international flights.

'Everything was different from SA'

"We were lucky because we didn't fly back right away. We'd spend three or four days in a place, which was wonderful. We could go sightseeing and shopping and everything we did was so different from South Africa. The food was different, the clothing was different, the people were different. Everything was just an enormous adventure."

Fernandes guestimates that she had visited more than 40 different countries throughout her career. 

As much of this took place during apartheid and with mounting international pressure on South Africa, things started getting "hectic", Fernandes says. 

"After sanctions were imposed, I was assigned on the last flight out of New York. My one colleague was chased out of a taxi and the bus that was meant to pick us up left us behind." After finding their own way to the airport, where British Airways shared a terminal with SAA, Fernandes and her colleague faked British accents and removed their insignia in an attempt to be allowed in the terminal. 

"Travelling was just wonderful, shopping in Hong Kong or Bangkok, sightseeing in London, New York is very exciting..."

On SAA's last flight to Australia, she and her colleagues were detained by customs for hours, with officials sifting through their belongings. 

Fernandes has mostly fond memories, though, naming Lisbon, Portugal, as her favourite destination. "It's very laid-back there, and the people are so kind. If you lose your way, someone would turn around and show you where to go, the food is delicious - that was definitely my favourite. 

"Travelling was just wonderful, shopping in Hong Kong or Bangkok, sightseeing in London, New York is very exciting..."

When her sister passed away in 1998, however, Fernandes became the instant mother to her three nieces - the eldest 16 and the youngest five. That was the end of her international flying career and she flew domestically only as she needed to be closer to them in order to raise them. Interestingly, one is today a cabin crew member for Emirates in Dubai. 

'Flying was glamorous'

Fernandes says when she started attending on flights 49 years ago, flying was not what it is today. 

"It was glamorous. The emphasis was on the glamour, the grooming, and being more sociable. It wasn't as rushed as it is today. 

"We were 'walking Googles' in our day, she says with her infectious laugh. "We had to tell passengers where to go, what to do, where to stay... We had to know the sightseeing spots, what buses to take...we interacted so much more with passengers, we actually became friends. 

"Most of my colleagues had friends who were celebrities, we had the opportunity to bond with different kinds of people in a way that most people never do." 

Planes today are also very different, having become "much quieter and much busier", Fernandes says. "Every year the seats get narrower and the aisles get narrower and the passengers get more, so servicing them has become a lot more hectic." 

Where did the time go?

Fernandes says she is "absolutely shocked" that she will have done this job for 50 years soon. "It just happened! There I was, enjoying my life, flying one day after another, one month after another, and obviously one year after another...and suddenly 50 years have gone past! I don't know where the time went..."

Her fondest memory, says Fernandes, was when she was put in charge of a flight from London carrying VIP guests for the inauguration of former president Nelson Mandela. 

Marion Fernandes

Marion Fernandes. (Chanté Schatz, News24)

Fernandes' half-century-long career is a record for Africa, and she is one of very few cabin crew members to have reached such a milestone worldwide, says Fernandes' manager, Jean de Villiers.

And given the fact that the minimum age for flight attendants is now 21 and retirement age is set at 65, Fernandes' record will never be surpassed.

"Marion has been a true example to everyone here," De Villiers says. "She's a brilliant crew member who is always diligent, on time...she takes extreme pride in her work."

De Villiers says Comair, where Fernandes has worked for the past 21 years, kept her on staff past her retirement age because she is invaluable as a coach to junior crew members, given her vast experience. When she is not on a flight, she trains staff members on board a decommissioned plane on Comair's premises. 

During News24's visit, colleagues greeted her with affection and enthusiasm. "You're a celebrity now," one quipped, as a scheduled training session was especially put on hold for a photo session on the plane.

Colleagues also teased her about using the outdated term "air hostess" in an earlier interview on the Scenic Drive on Jacaranda FM. These days the term is considered condescending, she says. 

'Brilliant leader'

"She's a brilliant on-board leader and we will be sad to see her go," says De Villiers. 

Fernandes is also sad that her career is coming to an end. "But I understand that there are rules and regulations so I just have to be graceful about it." 

Fernandes' advice to aspiring and young flight attendants is to "just enjoy it".

"If you have a passion for something, then you're not working. Make the most of it. Everybody has a story and everybody has a reason for flying. Some are on honeymoon, while others are off to a funeral. Being able to share in their joy or help them deal with their sadness is what makes it worthwhile, for me."

Fernandes will take to the skies as a crew leader for the last time on July 17, but she will soon be back on many planes, albeit as a passenger. 

Her first trip will be to Dubai to visit her daughter. "I plan to travel the world again. I have family and friends all over the world, so that's what I'll be doing for a while."

(A still-active US flight attendant, Bette Nash, who is 83 years old, is the world record holder with over 61 years of service.) 

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