REBECCA Verzosa-Santos, the Philippine Airlines (PAL) first flight attendant, remembers vividly that one of her jobs aboard a DC-4 on the way to Oakland, San Francisco, in 1946 was to pump the rubber mattresses for the 40 returning American GIs to sleep on.
“The four-engine airplane was noisy. It was not pressurized and subject to the vagaries of bad weather. The seats were bucket seats, were in military configuration, so the soldiers had to sleep on the floor,” she recalled.
Now 91 years old, “Becky” was among PAL’s most honored guests during a gala on March 16 at the New York Hilton to celebrate the airline’s return to New York, after an absence of 18 years.
After she was introduced to PAL Chairman Lucio Tan, Becky kissed the hand of “Kapitan,” as Tan is fondly called, and he returned the favor by kissing her hands, as well, followed by the kissing of hands, of Tan’s wife, Carmen.
“I am so proud that Mr. Tan is the owner of PAL. This is our airline, the Filipinos’ airline,” she said, getting emotional but still full of vigor, despite her age. The audience gave her a standing ovation.
Earlier, the BusinessMirror interviewed Becky at the sidelines of the festivity. She recalled that during her first flight across the Pacific onboard PAL, the first by any Asian airline, she was the only female among other flight attendants.
“We ate sandwiches and mostly canned goods, washed down by coffee from thermos bottles,” Becky said.
Her experience from the historic 1946 trip is a far cry from the Manila-New York flight that arrived at the JFK Airport in the early hours of March 16. This time, PAL flew the long-range B777.
The wide-body aircraft seats 36 passengers in business class and 218 in economy, and offers an advanced entertainment system and gourmet cuisine.
Verzosa-Santos lives in the Chelsea section of New York, and is practically a PAL institution, having served the airline for 41 years.
After graduating from the University of the Philippines with a bachelor’s degree in Education, she worked briefly in the US Air Force until learning from a coworker of PAL’s need for flight attendants, as the airline resumed operations after World War II.
She passed the test, which at that time required applicants to speak a foreign language and Tagalog. She speaks five local dialects and remembers her instructor, an American named Elaine Smith, a flight attendant of Trans-World Airlines.
She served on PAL’s first domestic flight after the war until her assignment on the historic Trans-Ocean flight.
Verzosa-Santos married Air Force Capt. Miguel Santos, whom she met on a blind date. They had three children, Fr. Cesar Santos, a priest; Gary, a mining engineer; and Rebecca, a teacher at the United Nations International School.
Among Becky’s many accomplishments was training the first cabin crew of Japan Airlines; writing PAL’s first manual for flight attendants; and initiating PAL’s baggage-claims department.
She earned an MBA from De La Salle University (where most of her classmates were military generals), won numerous awards and accolade, and is included with her granddaughter in a coffee-table book Wise Women.
Image credits: Recto Mercene