Cheri Campbell spent 30 years rearing children and helping her husband with his auto-repair business. Now she’s doing something for herself.
But before the 53-year-old Fairview Heights woman became a reserve flight attendant in November, she consulted family members to make sure they would be OK with her crazy schedule.
“Reserve” means Cheri is on call three weeks a month with Trans States Airlines. If needed, she must report to St. Louis Lambert International Airport in an hour and a half and be packed for a shift that could last several days.
“It’s a different kind of job,” she told the family. “I might not be home on Christmas or Easter. I might be flying.”
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Everyone told Cheri to “go for it.”
Since that time, the mother of three and grandmother of two has been to Canada and all over the United States, spending more than 300 hours in the air and 60 nights in hotel rooms.
“It’s strange when she’s not home since we’ve been together so long,” said Brian, 55. “But if she’s happy, honestly, I am, too.”
Cheri still works part time at Campbell’s Automotive in Belleville, answering the phone and keeping books. But when the airline calls, she throws on her uniform, grabs her bag, drives to the airport and goes up, up and away.
Layovers in other cities can last an hour or all day and night, so that allows a little time for sightseeing. Cheri has visited Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, the CN Tower in Toronto, a military park in Buffalo, N.Y., and a beach in Hawaii.
“I love it,” she said. “I love meeting people. I love getting to see places that I probably would have never seen.”
I have a lot of people who say, ‘Oh, you’re a stewardess. You serve drinks.’ But I don’t get offended. I just educate.
Cheri Campbell on reactions to her new job
“Our airline started in 1982,” said Debbie Hicks, manager of inflight service training. “We don’t have name recognition with some people, but we’ve been doing this for quite some time.”
Like father, like daughter
The seed for Cheri’s new career may have been planted when she was a girl. Her father, the late Don Galik, worked in production control for McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing). He’d bring home airline patches and let her sit in cockpits of airplanes.
By that time, she had met Brian at Fridays in Belleville. They made a quick love connection and got married in 1986.
Cheri worked at the auto-repair shop while rearing Shannon, now 29, a special-education teacher for Belleville District 118; Jake, 27, a social studies teacher and football coach at Althoff Catholic High School; and Kelsey, 24, a hairstylist at Salon Whimz.
“When the kids were growing up, it was perfect,” Cheri said. “I could take off if they had a doctor’s appointment or something going on at school. I managed a lot of their sports teams.”
In recent years, the family has grown to include grandson Sam, 5, and granddaughter Emie, 2 months. But as an “empty nester,” Cheri thought it was time to expand her own horizons.
She knew Campbell’s had dependable employees to keep things running smoothly, so she began applying for other jobs.
“She went on her (airline) interview on our 30th anniversary,” Brian said. “She was really nervous. I thought, ‘This is either going to be the best anniversary ever or the worst one.’”
Cheri made the cut, thanks to her bright personality, customer-service experience and changes in the airline industry during the past 50 years.
Early flight attendants, known as “stewardesses,” had to be unmarried females. Neither restriction applies today. The minimum age at Trans States is 19; there is no maximum.
As for height and weight, a person must fall between 4-foot-11 and 5-foot-10 without shoes, fit in a jumpseat and be able to walk down a cabin aisle easily.
“We’re looking for someone who is warm and welcoming and genuine and approachable and empathetic,” said Ronald Davis, Trans States manager of inflight standards and compliance.
Service with a smile
Cheri’s job started with two months of rigorous training and testing, mostly related to safety. Some sessions took place in a mock fuselage at Lambert.
Flight attendants must verify that in-cabin safety equipment is functioning properly, be able to administer CPR, give instructions to passengers on what to do in cases of emergency and follow a long list of other rules and regulations.
They’re also responsible for keeping cabins clean and comfortable and making sure passengers are on the right flights with acceptable carry-on luggage.
“I don’t think people realize how much we have to learn and how much we have to be tested on,” Cheri said. “I have a lot of people who say, ‘Oh, you’re a stewardess. You serve drinks.’ But I don’t get offended. I just educate. I’ll say, ‘No, I’m a flight attendant.’”
One challenge is dealing with a diverse population. Some passengers are having fun, going on vacation or visiting loved ones. Others are attending funerals or traveling on business.
Cheri hasn’t yet faced any medical or legal problems, and she finds most people to be friendly and cooperative. But there are exceptions.
“You’ve just got to keep smiling,” she said.
Trans States gives women a choice of uniform styles: navy dresses or blazers with skirts or pants. All are worn with neck scarves for United Express or American Eagle.
Cheri prefers dresses with heeled pumps, although at 5-foot-7, she changes into flats while serving drinks and snacks. The airline also issues official wristwatches due to the importance of timing in record-keeping and other duties.
Cheri has become a pro at packing, fitting all she needs for several days into one carry-on and a flight bag.
“I’ve gotten 3 a.m. calls to be at the airport at 4:30,” she said. “It could have been that someone called in sick, or maybe someone’s schedule had to change. You have to be flexible.”
The airline offers employees health insurance and a 401K program, as well as free standby travel all over the world for them and their spouses, children and parents. That’s Cheri’s favorite perk.
She hopes to persuade Brian to take some time off from his business and go on a trip or two.
“She was talking about how it would be cool to just leave on a Friday and go to Paris (or New York City) for dinner and then come back Monday,” Brian said.