In a room full of people who loved being airline stewardesses for Trans World Airlines during the golden age of the jet, Paulette Fazio really loved the job.

Fazio, 70, of Pittsburgh, was one of about 200 TWA retirees who gathered in a hotel conference room in Old City for their annual Silver Wings International conference Saturday morning. The room was full of midcentury modern women and a handful of men who'd spent most of their lives lugging luggage between home, hotels, and international flights to Paris and Rome before suitcases had wheels.

Fazio was carrying a vintage TWA flight attendant bag but said "Oh please, that's nothing" and left the room for a few minutes. When she returned, she was wearing a TWA shirt, a company button with a seagull on it, and a tropical-colored beanie none of the attendants ever loved.

Those items also paled in comparison with what was under Fazio's shorts. The TWA tattoo on her upper thigh, upside down to any eyes but hers, was a birthday gift she gave herself.

"TWA is in my heart, so it might as well be on my body," Fazio said as the women around her burst into laughter.

Anita Ridpath during her early years as a TWA flight attendant and nine years after she retired.
Provided
Anita Ridpath during her early years as a TWA flight attendant and nine years after she retired.

It was that kind of day at the Wyndham: mostly a family-reunion feel with some comedy skits in between and perhaps a slight bachelorette-party vibe for the ones hollering about martinis from the back of the room.

"I had to fight back tears a lot this morning," said Elaine Coleman, 78, of Teaneck, N.J.

The iconic airline began flights in 1924 but didn't truly take off until Howard Hughes, the famous Hollywood mogul, aviator, and eventual recluse, took over in 1939 and helped usher in the jet age. TWA's last flight was on Dec. 1, 2001, from Kansas City to St. Louis, but Silver Wings began earlier, in 1987, so former attendants could "celebrate the pride and dignity of their chosen profession." The group has about 900 members.

"It was a family more than anything," said Erica Ruitenbach, 70, of Palm Springs, Calif. "It was our life."

They hugged one another all morning, asking where they flew out of and if they'd heard from so-and-so or whether they thought the conference room was too cold or too hot. A card was passed around for one flight attendant who'd had kidney surgery. One man sneaked out early to go to the Barnes museum.

Silver Wings International members Stephanie Byrne (left), Valerie Roffe (second from left), Beth Holcombe (right), and Priscilla Harrison with Kaunteya Chitnis after his question-and-answer session about the TWA Hotel under construction at John F. Kennedy International Airport, during their annual convention, held this year in Philadelphia.
Joseph Kaczmarek
Silver Wings International members Stephanie Byrne (left), Valerie Roffe (second from left), Beth Holcombe (right), and Priscilla Harrison with Kaunteya Chitnis after his question-and-answer session about the TWA Hotel under construction at John F. Kennedy International Airport, during their annual convention, held this year in Philadelphia.

Many of the attendants lamented over the long-gone days of civilized air travel, when men wore suits and women donned gloves — not pajama bottoms and yoga pants. Many went to college before joining TWA and spoke three languages.

Flying is just meaner today, they said, and that includes the ruthless airlines overbooking flights and the entitled passengers.

"Today, it's more like a bus in the sky," Ruitenbach said.

Nearly all of them picked Rome as their favorite destination — the shopping, the food, the sights. Layovers were bellissima.

"I mean, I'm Italian, why even ask me that? Rome is Rome," Fazio said.

Still, there's a lot they don't miss, including hopping on the scale to keep the job or bra checks often done by a male boss. Each passenger was given four Winston cigarettes per flight and the "no smoking" section was more of an inside joke.

"They had little curtains, but they didn't do anything," said former attendant Laurie Lees.

The highlight of Saturday's meeting was a presentation about the forthcoming hotel in the old TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens. The sweeping concrete terminal is a temple to aviation, a masterpiece seemingly out of the Jetsons designed by Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen in 1962 and dark since 2001.

Kaunteya Chitnis of MCR Development wooed the crowd as if he were putting on a fireworks display, showing slides of the 505 rooms that will be built there, the attendants' old designer uniforms, and a prop-driven Lockheed Constellation that will become a reservations-only lounge in the new hotel.

"It's going to be the most iconic hotel in the world," Chitnis said.

The attendants had a lot of questions: Would the hotel preserve the briefing rooms where attendants met? Could the Silver Wings be flown there for the grand opening? Why not build more "Connie" lounges to imbibe in?

There were some minor corrections about who designed what uniform.

"The powder blue Ralph Lauren was my favorite," whispered Bonnie Blake, 69, of The Villages, Fla.

Mostly, the retired flight attendants woo-hooed and clapped in approval, and at least one pointed out that the hotel and the history of TWA would live on long after them.

"This is all I ever wanted to do," said Sharon Graves, 69, of Stamford, Conn., who still works as an attendant. "It was in my high school yearbook as a future goal."

Beth Holcombe was among the retired TWA flight attendants meeting in Philadelphia this weekend for the Silver Wings International convention.
Provided
Beth Holcombe was among the retired TWA flight attendants meeting in Philadelphia this weekend for the Silver Wings International convention.