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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Longest-serving flight attendant dies after 67-year career

American Airlines flight attendant Bette Nash, right, reminisces with Joan Myers-Singh while on the ground in Boston before they prepare to return to Washington.   (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
By Kim Bellware Washington Post

In seven decades of transformation in the airline industry, commercial air travel has swapped glamour for efficiency, expanded technology, shrank legroom and banished smoking. Security is tighter and meals aren’t as fancy, but in-flight movies are better. One constant through it all was Washington-based flight attendant Bette Nash.

Nash, who died May 17, brought friendliness and a touch of elegance from flying’s golden era to her record-setting 67-year career as an American Airlines flight attendant. Nash never formally retired from the airline before her death due to complications from cancer, according to American Airlines and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. She was 88.

“Bette was a legend at American and throughout the industry, inspiring generations of flight attendants,” American Airlines said in a statement announcing her death. “Fly high, Bette. We’ll miss you.”

Nash started her career in 1957 with the now-defunct Eastern Air Lines, when a ticket cost $12 and reservations weren’t required. She spent much of her time based out of Reagan National Airport flying daily routes, including the D.C.-to-Boston shuttle that became known to regulars as the “Nash Dash.” (On her 60th diamond anniversary, American Airlines noted that as its most senior flight attendant, Nash was allowed to fly any route she wished).

Washington attorney Kenneth Feinberg, known for his work as special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, was among Nash’s regulars. During his frequent flights to Boston, New York and Philadelphia, he would fly with her about twice a week. He recalled Nash as a warm and friendly presence who loved to wax nostalgic about the old days of flying and chat with her passengers about their families and travels.

Feinberg said Nash once explained that while much of the flying public thinks flight attendants tend to be energetic young people, a surprising number had been on the job long enough to amass 30 to 40 years of seniority. Then he recalls Nash telling him: “But you’re looking at number one.”

Feinberg said he and other regular passengers agreed with that assessment, dubbing her “the Babe Ruth of flight attendants,” adding that it was “because she was the best.”

But Nash wasn’t just the No. 1 flight attendant in her passenger’s eyes.

On Jan. 4, 2021, she was certified as the Guinness World Record holder for the longest flight attendant career, with more than 64 years in the sky.

A year later, Nash, then 86 years and four days old, was recognized again in another world record as the oldest active flight attendant.

Born Bette Burke on Dec. 31, 1935, the future record-holder was the eldest of three girls who grew up outside Atlantic City. She took a job with Eastern Air Lines at 21 and never stopped flying.

Nash knew that she wanted to be a flight attendant from the time she was 16, the Boston Globe reported.

“In a way, at that time, it was like you were on the stage to a degree,” she said. “It just looked so elegant. And romantic. It was the romance of the skies. You could take off and be in another world almost.”

Outside of flying, Nash was a parishioner of more than 45 years at Sacred Heart Church in Manassas, Va. According to a 2017 Catholic Herald article, she and her son volunteered with the church’s food pantry.

In 2017, Nash told The Post she preferred the daily shuttle routes so she could be home each night with her son, Christian, who has Down syndrome.

As the airline industry changed over the years - the industry is a far cry from pillbox hats and girdles for flight attendants and lobster and carved meat dinners for first class, Nash told The Post in 2017 - she endured. She survived airline deregulation, strikes, oil crises and 9/11, moving among airlines such as Eastern, US Airways and even the Trump Shuttle before they were eventually conglomerated.

Feinberg said Nash was a keen observer of the industry’s changes, and found that deregulation was good for pricing but undercut the unique experience of flights. Nash was fond of the pre-9/11 days when different airlines departed from the same terminal, and passengers could run to a shuttle without a reservation, or switch airlines with little hassle.

Still, she never lost her ability to make air travel friendly, according to Feinberg.

“She didn’t hold against anyone their frustrations or unhappiness with delays,” Feinberg said, telling him such troubles rolled off her back because “it comes with the territory.”

He suspects Nash kept flying because throughout all her years in the business, she never lost her love of meeting passengers from all walks of life.

“Not just the lawyers and investment bankers and stars,” Feinberg said. “She loved meeting the plumber on a vacation with his wife, or the waiter or busboy - she saw in her workday a microcosm of America. And she loved that.”