On a beautiful sunny day leaving London headed to Charlotte, Carol Dobyns Fair was on the job, working as a cabin service director/purser for British Airways.
It was a day just like any other day for the Johnson City woman, but in an instant, everything changed.
The day was September 11, 2001.
“We had served lunch when the cockpit called me up front and told me a plane had just hit the World Trade Center,” Fair recalls.
“I said, ‘How in the hell did that happen? It’s a beautiful day out there — the weather is good in New York.’ But while I was standing there, the second plane hit, so we knew the jig was up then.”
Fair located a “deadheading” crew member — a pilot headed to his next assignment. She asked him to go to the cockpit door with her to stand guard.
“He took seatbelt extensions and wrapped them around his fists to use as weapons,” she said. “At that point, we didn’t know who we had on board.”
Within 12 hours, Fair’s plane arrived at Nova Scotia, landing in the middle of 42 jumbo jets, parked tail to nose, nose to tail.“We had been on the ground 12 hours before they dismantled us in the order in which we landed,” she said. “Then they herded us into the Air Canada crew lounge and it was all on TV.”
Fair’s voice broke and her eyes filled with tears as she remembered the scene. “There were United Airline flight attendants in there and they were all crying because they knew people who were on those planes,” she said. “It was a very emotional time for everyone.”
Fair, 75, continues to work as purser with American Airlines. The most senior original Piedmont Airlines flight attendant still flying, her career spans 56 years with Piedmont, US Air, US Airways, British Airways and American.
In 2008, she was inducted into the North Carolina Transportation Hall of Fame, alongside such notables as Orville and Wilbur Wright. In 2010, she was enshrined in Tennessee’s Aviation Hall of Fame.
In 1963, at age 19, Fair became one of Piedmont Airline’s first female flight attendants – a “stewardess.”
“Until 1962, all flight attendants were male,” Fair noted. “Some people welcomed us with open arms, but some despised us because they thought we were taking the men’s jobs.”
However the airlines soon began hiring all women for those jobs, and Fair says the playing field was anything but level.
Female attendants were terminated if they married or when they turned 32 — not the case for male employees.
While many of her co-workers chose to marry and quit, Fair waited to marry until the laws changed, when she was 26. Her marriage to Kenneth Dean Fair lasted only five years, ending with his premature death at the age of 38.
And while age and marital status were certainly areas of discrimination in Fair’s early career, weight also became an issue.
“They called me in one time, threatening my job because of my weight,” she said. “But there were men – ticket agents, pilots – who were huge.”
Furious, Fair threatened to sue. A call was made, and the decision was made to allow Fair to stay, if she provided a doctor’s statement that she was “healthy at her current weight.” She fought for and was successful in seeing that policy was also extended to her colleagues.
“So we have a right to be whatever we are now,” she said. “We were so young and so gullible, but it was so wrong. It was total discrimination.”
Fair’s long career has given her the opportunity to meet many interesting people. Cartoonist Mel Blanc once did his “Sylvester” voice for her, Martha Stewart upset one of her colleagues to the point of tears, and Jeopardy host Alex Trebec slept all the way to California.
Most memorable, she says, is the late actress, Elizabeth Taylor.
“I was serving in the cabin and I asked Elizabeth what she wanted to drink and she said ‘I’ll have a vodka.’
“She was married to Senator John Warner then, but the two sat separately and he hollered across the aisle and said ‘You don’t need a vodka.’ I looked back at her and asked, ‘Miss Taylor, how would you like your vodka?’”
“When I brought her the drink, she had a little can of Donald Duck orange juice in her bag and she pulled it out and mixed it with her vodka,” Fair said. “I thought that was really unusual.”
The encounter netted Fair a rare autograph in a book she treasures to this day. The inscription reads: “To Carol, Best wishes, Elizabeth Taylor Warner.”